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Roy DeCarava, Photographer, Dies at 89

Roy DeCarava
Roy DeCarava

The noted photographer Roy DeCarava died on Tuesday in New York City. He was 89 years old. DeCarava is considered one of America’s greatest photographers. His work documenting African-American life and culture set a standard for several generations of photographers. He is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Langston Hughes on The Sweet Flypaper of Life, which was a best-seller in its time and remains an important part of the literary canon.

DeCarava often received grants for various projects, but he retained a lifelong interest in jazz. Over the years, he photographed many jazz musicians, including John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Duke Ellington. DeCarava preferred to capture his subjects naturally with a minimum of formality and the result was an intimacy quite different from other jazz photographers of that time. His portrait of Roy Haynes from 1956 shows the drummer in profile lost in his thoughts as he practices with just his sticks. In a photo from a party in 1957, we see Hazel Scott at the piano turning to look at a reflective Billie Holiday (seated to her left), as if each is the audience for the other.

DeCarava influenced many younger photographers, including Beuford Smith, Carrie Mae Weems and Frank Stewart. The latter, who works as Jazz at Lincoln Center as its staff photographer, recently told JT that he came to New York City as a young man specifically to meet and study with DeCarava, who taught photography for many years at Cooper-Union and Hunter College. Stewart said that DeCarava “taught a whole philosophy about how to approach a subject honestly and tell the truth.”

DeCarava’s work has been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and was part of the renowned Family of Life projects. For a complete obit and biography written by Randy Kennedy, visit the New York Times web site.

Originally Published