Promoting, supporting and encouraging the study of the United States since 1955

British Association for American Studies


Issue 15, Autumn 2009: Article 1


Issue 15, Autumn 2009: Article 1

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 15, Autumn 2009

‘Visions, dreams and a few nightmares’: Roy DeCarava’s Representations of African American Workers in Harlem

Rebecca Cobby
© Rebecca Cobby. All Rights Reserved

I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people. Morning, noon, at night, at work, going to work, coming home from work, at play, in the street, talking, kidding, laughing, in the home…I want to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people…thus revealing the roots from which spring the greatness of all human beings…I do not want a documentary or sociological statement, I want a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.

Roy DeCarava, ‘Guggenheim Application’ (1952) [1]

‘The black aesthetic is something that grows from our culture, from our experience that makes us see differently, feel differently’.[2] This statement by photographer Roy DeCarava and the excerpt from his Guggenheim Fellowship application (seen above) highlight one of the key tenets of his photographic philosophy, that because he is an African American photographer, his photographs of the African American community display a level of visual and emotional insight that cannot be achieved or replicated by a white photographer. Although often compared to figures such as Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Aaron Siskind due to similarities in technique and aesthetic, DeCarava strongly believes in the power of an individual subjectivity in the photo-making process that is always racially coded, stating decisively that “the black artist looks at the same world in a different way than a Euro-American artist…he has a different agenda”.[3] As such DeCarava is often credited with having a created “black aesthetic in photography”.[4] It is defined in the words of Richard Powell, after Stuart Hall, as a term to describe “a collection of philosophical theories about the arts of the African diaspora”.[5] DeCarava himself describes it as a means of “communication”, a way for people of African descent to be “understood and…heard” through their inherited “cultural history…and philosophical ideas”.[6] DeCarava’s cultural agenda is to illustrate that African Americans are not merely victims of history, ‘hardened’ into stereotypical caricatures ‘by centuries of struggle against man and nature’, but instead have created a private, complex world of strength, creativity and ideas, despite and, indeed, often due to, those very particular struggles.[7] Far from an art that is concerned only with racial uplift in a sociological sense, however, DeCarava positions himself and his work firmly against a history of sociologically invested images which did not portray ‘Black people as people’, but only ever viewed them ‘in the context of a problem’ or as fodder for journalistic exposé, seeking instead to relocate the black subject in an artistic visual space where African American experience is revealed as ambivalent and multiplicitous.[8] In doing so his photographs can be seen as representative of an aesthetic defined by Isaac Julien as exploring ‘territories and ideas… politically… through construction and reconstruction’ and through the evocation of ‘multiple identities which…challenge with passion and beauty the previously static order’.[9]

In order to explore these ideas in relation to DeCarava’s work, this essay utilises his photographs of African American male labourers in 1960s Harlem, analysing in particular the relationship he creates between vision and visuality, the viewer and the subject, the performance of black identities, and ideas of black heroism. In doing so it addresses two of DeCarava’s aesthetic techniques–his use of light and shade and his sense of physical distance from his subject–and the ways in which they are utilised to produce images that re-envision African American experience and reinforce the importance of the relationship between viewer and subject in visual culture. It looks at the ways in which DeCarava’s art can be seen as one of recuperation and reconfiguration of the black subject, and argues that despite its eschewing of sociologically-bent racial representations and direct political association (such as that seen in the New Deal-era documentary photography carried out by the Farm Security Administration (F.S.A.) and others) his images communicate a political message in its recognition of individual subjectivities and questioning of objective reality.

In this sense DeCarava’s photographic theory replicates and politicises key postmodern critiques which the medium sees as inhabiting the “world of the simulacrum” in which its ability to reproduce a tangible or truthful “reality” is wholly questioned.[10] Whilst this is now far from an original theoretical claim, in the context of 1960s Harlem (and even in the present day), debates over the visual representation of African American subjects are fraught with discussions over the construction of visual hierarchies, presumptive and narrow ideas about African American identity, and endless deliberations over questions of racial authenticity. ‘Society’, DeCarava argues, ‘is insane in its preoccupation with unreality’ [11]. In other words white “mainstream” society still preoccupies itself with the myths about African American character that are a product of its own creation, that have come to be considered an often unchallenged reality. As a remedy to this DeCarava has created something resembling Scott McQuire’s conception of an ‘oneiric archive’.[12] This mythic, dream and phantom-like body of work ‘contest[s]’ outmoded and ‘inherited fantasies of black manhood’ through a visual re-imagining of African American male experience that imbues agency, gravity and most importantly complexity upon those represented.[13] Sara Blair has also recognised this ‘oneiric’ quality to DeCarava’s work as a way of describing how it picks up from where Aaron Siskind’s photographs of Harlem in the 1930s leave off, ‘where alterity and self-knowledge are entangled and inevitably racialized…at the boundary between outsidership and belonging’.[14] As a photographer whom Blair recognises as ‘verging onto the territory of the non-objective, formally self conscious yet committed to the found material landscape’, Siskind can be conceived of as the closest photographic predecessor to DeCarava in terms of visually capturing the Harlem community.[15] Despite his professional and personal involvement with Harlem, and his claims to non-objectivity, however, Siskind cannot claim the same specialist ‘insider insight’ espoused by DeCarava. DeCarava’s images reflect his personal subjective vision of Harlem and its inhabitants as a life-long resident and neighbour, and as an African American with none of the claims to objective reality or known truths that past representations of black Americans have promoted. ‘I’m not a documentarian’, he maintains. ‘I think of myself as poetic, a maker of visions, dreams and a few nightmares’.[16]

In The Black Image in the New Deal (1992), Nicholas Natanson demonstrates the extent to which many documentary images of African American labourers during the Depression Era for publications such as Life magazine, relied on hideous stereotypes of watermelon-eating Negroes or subservient black waiters that simply bolstered historical myths, reinforcing the hierarchies of black and white and solidifying the ‘connection between service and African heritage’.[17] Natanson also identifies such visual rhetoric in publications like Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell’s You Have Seen Their Faces (1937), a piece that intended to prick the reader’s social conscience, but that in the process fell back on what Natanson labels as a ‘watermelon consciousness’, photographs of hopeless and helpless looking African Americans coupled with taglines which evoke all the myths of their slow-mindedness and social and economic irresponsibility: ‘The auction boss talks so fast a colored man can’t hardly ever tell how much his tobacco crop sells for’.[18] The most comprehensive example of documentary photography featuring African Americans during this era, the photobook 12 Million Black Voices (1941), features photographs selected from the F.S.A. collection by Edwin Rosskam accompanied by a polemically charged narrative by Richard Wright. Whilst this publication strove to highlight the human plight of the African American people during this period, the book’s evocation of black suffering and victimhood (‘after we have divided the crops we are still entangled as deeply as ever in this hateful web of cotton culture. We are older; our bodies weaker…our clothes are in rags we are still in debt’), and it’s focus on the mass rather than a community of distinct individuals falls short of DeCarava’s attempts to reclaim African American individual subjectivity.[19] In addition, the statistics-led, government-tied approach of this F.S.A.-related work is held by DeCarava to be suspiciously insincere. ‘I strongly suggest’, he says to Ivor Miller, ‘that they wouldn’t have paid so much attention to blacks and the poor if [the F.S.A.] hadn’t been…a government survey, designed to promote legislation and shape public opinion’.[20]

Peter Galassi states that DeCarava ‘resists the “documentary” label…not only because it tends to reduce photography to a mechanical gathering of facts, but because it implies a pose of sociological neutrality that is inimical to his art’.[21] The key word here, then, is ‘implies‘, as DeCarava’s shunning of representations that portray black people as sociological problems recognises the ideological weight involved in those visual constructions of black experience. By disregarding white mainstream documentary’s claims to photographic neutrality or realism, DeCarava is working against its inherent sociological bias towards viewing African Americans as problems or victims. Thus DeCarava’s photography complicates the relationship between art and document, fiction and reality. His photographs evoke the imaginative, the unreal, the dramatic, the performative, yet, he claims, are authentic and truthful reflections of ‘life as it is in the black community’.[22] Thus, he implies imagination, drama and performance are crucial factors in everyday African American life. One can never capture ‘real’ experience on camera, as the concept of ‘the real’ does not exist.

One of the ways in which DeCarava creates his poetic visions of African American experience is through his use of light and shadow. ‘I never use flash,’ he insists. ‘I hate it with a passion because it obliterates what I saw’.[23] This recognition of the power of light to blind and obscure rather than reveal is key to DeCarava’s aesthetic technique, as well as tying his work to ideas of vision and visuality that are a constant presence within African American artistic production and scholarship. As Michele Wallace recognises,

vision, visuality and visibility are part of a problematic in African American discourse [as] [h]istorically, the body and face of the black have posed no obstacle whatsoever to an unrelenting and generally contemptuous objectification.[24]

DeCarava’s use of light and shadow in his images are his attempt to ‘re-envision vision’, to rely on the darker tones of his photography to reveal something more truthful about the African American experience.[25] Westerbeck and Meyerowitz write:

That [DeCarava] photographs his black subjects in a dark space compels the viewer to adjust his vision, to make subtle distinctions, to see shades of meaning and emotion as well as light. The effect is to humanize his subjects who are frequently viewed only as stereotypes in our society.[26]

By creating such gradations in tone DeCarava challenges the viewer to work harder in their role as observer, to look closer and deeper into the darkness of his images, to re-see the black subject and to rethink their attitudes towards black communities and individuals by doing so. As Robin Kelley states, ‘in order to “know” the history of black working people we must slip into the darkness’.[27]. This process can be seen most clearly in DeCarava’s subway photography and particularly in the photograph Man with two shovels (1959) which the murky conditions of the subterranean subway train and the experience of the African American labourer’s commute are presented to the viewer as equally mysterious in their visual impenetrability.

Recalling, perhaps, for some viewers Walker Evans’s famous series of subway photographs, Man with two shovels portrays a man who appears to be sat opposite DeCarava inside an incredibly dark subway car. Here we see direct correlation in subject matter between DeCarava and photographer Walker Evans. Evans’s more famous subway images were taken unbeknownst to his subjects on a series of commuter trains. In DeCarava’s photograph, however, the viewer cannot discern whether the subject is aware of his photograph being taken, as his face is almost completely indistinguishable from the shadow around it. This darkness surrounding the facial area actively encourages the viewer to lean in closer, to try to penetrate the shadows for any recognisable characteristics. The image appears to play a trick on its viewer–at times a quick glance seems to produce the outline of a nose, or an eye; from certain angles or in certain light conditions one may glimpse the semblance of a mouth; and at other times nothing appears recognisable regardless of how long or closely one looks.[28] The use of natural light in this photograph has the effect of creating a gradation in tone from this very dark black, through various stages of grey in the man’s clothing and the surrounding car, up to the lightest, white tones which fall upon the man’s hands and the handles of the two shovels he holds. Thus there exists a visual link between the two apparent tools of the man’s labour–his hands and the shovels. The effect of DeCarava’s tonal variations is twofold. Firstly, the almost literal erasure of the man’s face in favour of his hands and tools provides a commentary on the ways in which working class peoples, specifically here African Americans, are often defined (or seen) solely by their labour role and particularly their ability to carry out physical work. Secondly, the darkness created by DeCarava’s lack of flash combined with the specific position of the shovels in relation to the camera creates a visual illusion. Rather than appearing as two shovels, at first glance they appear as one whose image has been blurred and therefore duplicated. The initial effect of the photograph then is to suggest that the camera and the people in the carriage have been subject to external movement–a jolt from the subway carriage perhaps, or from the elbow of a neighbouring passenger. This initial illusion of movement, followed by the subsequent realisation of the image’s stasis creates a strange and quite unsettling juxtaposition, and forces the viewer to readjust their preliminary visual assumptions about what they are seeing. The space of the subway car is cast as unstable, capable of illusion, subject to change over time and lacking in fixity; and the subject of the photograph is likewise subject to these visual shifts.

It is here that DeCarava’s aesthetic technique connects with his process of recuperation and revision. Just as we must adjust our method, intensity and duration of looking to see beyond the literal darkness of Man with two shovels, so too, DeCarava implies, must we alter our vision in order to more fully understand the nuances of working class African American experience. Quick glances are not enough, as they may prove false. Rather than rewarding the viewers’ efforts with a great revelation or truth about black experience, however, the act of peering into DeCarava’s shadows often leaves one with little insight or explanation. In her essay ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts’ Martha Rosler highlights two particular issues within social documentary photography: the tension between the viewer and the photographed subject–the “us” and the “them”–and the notion that photographs act upon the viewer through the dissemination of specifically selected visual imagery that generates this binary relationship. Both these issues intersect with the discrepancy in photography between reality and fantasy. Imagery can transform reality into a fantasy world through the utilisation of visual semiotic symbols. Such symbols may communicate certain hegemonic social, racial and political ideologies and thus create hierarchies between different groupings.[29] DeCarava’s use of the darkness in this photograph plays on this relationship linking the viewer and the viewed by erasing certain symbols that could create recognition and connection between them–here, the face and a sense of a stable, knowable, physical surrounding–and replacing them with shadow. Though the juxtaposition of the man’s hands and the shovels’ handles communicate semiotic meaning to the viewer in terms of the correlation between the man and physical labour, the creation of a hegemonic relationship between the viewer and the viewed cannot be completed and a racial or class-based ideology cannot be fully developed. The photographer’s statement that the ‘soft tonality’ of his work ‘reveals more’ may appear paradoxical, yet it becomes clear that what this photograph reveals is the processes through which hierarchies are created through visual practices and the ways in which aesthetics can be manipulated to challenge the formation of such hierarchies. As previously mentioned, DeCarava’s photographic philosophy centres upon the notion of individual subjectivity. ‘I’m not worried whether it’s easy to see or not,’ he states. ‘I’m very concerned about people looking at my work…but I’m not concerned about whether they see it at the expense of what I originally felt…the issue is, did it say what I wanted it to say?’.[30] Whilst this could appear to be a solipsistic, apolitical approach to art-making, the example of Man with two shovels reveals the political power inherent in the recognition of African American subjectivity in its ability to stand in opposition to the effects of white society’s racial myth-making.

DeCarava’s work is part of a tradition of African American art practices centred on these ideas of recuperation and resistance. DeCarava took up the camera in earnest from around 1947 onwards, his interest in the everyday activities of the working class inhabitants of his community echoing that of African American artists during the years of the Depression and beyond. Stacey I. Morgan highlights the close affinity that African Americans working in the social realist genre during the 1930s and 1940s, such as Charles White, Hale Woodruff and Charles Alston, felt towards the black working class. ‘This new generation of creators’, he writes, ‘felt themselves to be of as well as for the poor and working class masses of African Americans, often construing themselves as “cultural workers”‘.[31] This sentiment was shared by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, who, as Amy Kirschke points out, ‘always sympathized with, and even romanticized, the common labourer, whose experience he had briefly shared’.[32] Douglas states that the work he carried out as a young man gave him the ‘opportunity to test [his] strength and [his] manhood’; and that, in terms of his art, ‘depictions of the working class’ were ‘the essence of the Negro thing’.[33] Equally, Jacob Lawrence’s more abstract artworks concerned the ‘fundamental but neglected importance of African American labour’.[34] It celebrated the men who ‘”helped erect skyscrapers and tunnelled subways…as well as swept the corridors of these same skyscrapers and subways”‘.[35]

It is this African American artistic legacy, the conscious desire to place the everyday worker at the centre of African American life, which DeCarava simultaneously utilises and reconfigures. Typical social realist depictions of the black male worker by artists such as White cast him as a representative of all struggling African Americans; a mythic and symbolic hero, who was imbued with all the masculine qualities that black men were thought ‘to be inherently incapable of achieving’ (such as courage, and morality), and who aspired towards social uplift and a dream of economic abundance.[36] Far from standing alone in his desire for freedom and social justice, he was often visually aligned with historic African American figures such as Frederick Douglass, Crispus Attucks and Nat Turner, and in order to ‘contrast monumental heroism with feats of survival in everyday life’.[37] DeCarava’s portraits, however, are concerned with the understated, quiet acts of everyday life that align his conception of black heroism more with the work of Lawrence’s Migration Series, for instance, than with the epic, aggrandising works of the social realist painters. DeCarava was tutored by Charles White in the 1940s, yet, as Maren Stange identifies, he ‘rejected aspects of his teacher’s social realist style’, favouring the approach discussed above that was concerned with individual, subjective, emotional realities and an aesthetics of slippage, rather than fixity.[38]

In DeCarava’s view, White’s colossal subjects were ‘dynamic, overpowering figures [that] spoke of strength and dignity, but they were symbolic rather than human. I wanted my work to be more human’, he maintains in a 1984 video interview.[39] Yet, rather than fully losing their symbolic status, DeCarava’s worker subjects are also figures in which, ‘the contradictions and anxieties of the moment and milieu are writ large’.[40] In his Guggenheim proposal the photographer expressed this idea of symbolism through his desire to locate the universal in the particular, the impressive in the ordinary. ‘I want to express that moment’, he declares, ‘when a man going to work has meaning for that man and for me… for all men going to work at that given moment, when that man ceases being one man, but becomes all men’.[41] The anonymity of his ‘representative’ figures indicates an allowance for a greater freedom of viewer subjectivity, as in the absence of any information about the subject the viewer may map ideas, emotions and meaning on to the subject and their actions. This of course poses a problem for the previous discussion of DeCarava’s art as one of resistance to viewer-imposed assumptions about African American identity and experience. If there is no essential, objective truth then any view of a subject, DeCarava seems to be arguing, can only reflect a subjective reality. If the darkness of his images prevents an ‘outsider’ from mapping any substantial claims onto the image, then it makes it difficult to imagine how these images could be reflecting any kind of universally recognised humanity unless the only thing to be recognised is our universal lack of fixity as individuals; our universal recognition that the self is always “unknown”. It seems more plausible, perhaps, to rethink DeCarava’s picture of men going to work in more specific terms. For if it is DeCarava’s self-affirmed status as an “insider” that leads him to take images representing ‘life as it is in the black community’, then surely such a subjective vision can only be understood by another insider. When we read “for all men going to work'” should we instead be reading “for all African American men who live in Harlem going to work”?

Man with two shovels is one of the more extreme examples in DeCarava’s oeuvre of this relationship between subjectivity and reality. The visual play operating across the image ensures that no objective reality can be found in its darkest depths. The photograph therefore becomes as much about the process of looking as it is about what the viewer is looking at. The viewer is challenged not only to reconsider conceptions of African American identity, but also to dispute the visual processes by which those conceptions are made. The anonymity and partial invisibility of the man with two shovels can be empowering in that it commands the viewer to look more closely, preventing their conceptions about African American masculinity from becoming narrow and fixed. However, the success of DeCarava’s philosophy depends on the compliance of the viewer in this process.

How then are these ideas of subjectivity, reality and resistance played out in images that rely less on DeCarava’s tonal qualities for their effect and more on his treatment of angle and distance? In such shots the focus is more on the invisibility of the camera to the subject rather than the invisibility of the subject to the camera lens. DeCarava’s street shots are often taken without the knowledge of his subjects in order that something “realistic” and spontaneous may be represented. By capturing his subjects in what we could label as their “natural” state, that is, by photographing whatever face they have chosen to show to the world during the moment of the photograph, DeCarava highlights that the inherent truth about individuals is their ability to control aspects of their personality or appearance depending on the situation. In the case of African Americans this process of adaptation can be identified as part of the ‘daily acts of resistance and survival…created in aggrieved communities and expressed through culture’, in this case, photography.[42]

Whilst Kelley identifies the primary examples of everyday political resistance in the black labour force as acts of sabotage such as stealing or absenteeism, he also highlights the more general reliance of these strategies on the ability of black working people to, in the words of Paul Laurence Dunbar, ‘wear the mask’, that is, to perform their identity; a tactic that can become either empowering in its allowance of ‘clandestine and evasive resistance’ or constricting as it conceals an ‘inner pain generated by having to choke back one’s feelings about racism’.[43] DeCarava’s photography brings to light the existence of this ‘survival strategy’ in the African American labouring community, whilst highlighting the role played by his kind of ‘humanitarian art’ in the forwarding of agendas of ‘survival’ and ‘freedom’.[44] The focus of these photographs is on the everyday actions of these men as they get up, go to work and earn a living, and support their family despite the social and personal hardships they endure at the hands of American racism. Thus DeCarava’s ‘Everymen’ join the ranks of other real life folk heroes in becoming black culture’s ‘answer to confirmed sceptics who… maintained that the oppressed lacked the courage to reject white America’s skewed, pessimistic view of their human potential’.[45]

The image Fashion Central (1962) features a man lugging a load of boxes presumably filled with fashion garments on a wheeled trolley down a Harlem street. The load is large, but practically and meticulously stacked, giving a sense of balance and stability to a structure which could otherwise be precarious or hazardous. The stance of the worker, his apparent lack of physical strain and struggle, and the sense of his continual movement, or potential for movement, belies the considerable effort needed to move such a large pile of boxes. Indeed, he pulls the load with only a couple of fingers. The angle of the photograph gives the impression that he is heading downhill, contributing to the sense of physical effortlessness and control displayed in his movement. Such a reading of photographs such as this has led critics to recognise DeCarava’s figures as balletic, as they move ‘dancelike…across the clear and clogged spaces of a dangerous environment,’ that is, the street.[46] Reminiscent of Jane Jacobs’s description of the grace and bustle of New York’s city streets—the ‘ballet of the good city sidewalk’—the metaphor is particularly apt here, as it implies an inner mental and physical strength, strict bodily discipline and control, and great stamina, all concealed by a seemingly effortless outward grace and poise.[47] Like a position held in dance the photograph holds the man’s movement still for the fraction of a second it takes to click the shutter and contains within it all the anticipation and potential for his next step.

The recognition of such qualities in the black worker allows one to view DeCarava’s photographs as directly countering the negative stereotypes, or as Aaron Douglas refers to them, ‘outlandish myths’, that ‘were concocted to justify the exclusion of black men from [American] industries. It was seriously argued’, Douglas reminisces, ‘that the black man’s eyes, ears and reflexes were not sufficiently keen for regular factory work or our sense of touch was considered to be inadequate for the control and effective handling of fine tools, delicate instruments and fine machines’.[48] Although DeCarava’s workers are out on the city streets rather than in its factories, by casting the black worker as a deft and graceful figure, with a body that appears more than able to cope with the work required of him, DeCarava is defying those white myths, replacing them with a vision of the African American worker that is capable, skilful and therefore valuable to society. However, two factors in the photograph (both of which emphasize the importance of natural light and tone in DeCarava’s photography, here highlighting symbolic meaning rather than providing the mixture of revelation and concealment operating in Man with two shovels) complicate this reading of simple recuperation and hint at the extent to which black labour is nevertheless curtailed and controlled by a white agenda. Firstly, the man’s movement occurs between the two white lines of street markings, a detail which could be recognised as a commentary on the utilisation and containment of black physical labour within white parameters. Secondly, the watch that the man wears catches the glint of the sun becoming a bright white strip that contrasts strikingly against his dark arm. By aligning linear time with the colour of whiteness, the presence of the watch reminds the viewer that the ease and leisure with which this man seems to move is illusory. His time is controlled by the needs of his white employer, and, on a grander scale, by the voracious needs of white American capitalism.

DeCarava positions himself above and at a distance from his subject and uses a long lens in order to focus in on his activity. As Westerbeck and Meyerowitz note,

the height from which [DeCarava’s] pictures are usually made is a very specific one, high enough to have an overview and reflect on the scene but not so high that you become detached from it. This is the view you get looking out the window of a typical Harlem brownstone or tenement.[49]

DeCarava’s choice of distance and angle highlights the casual, everydayness of the scene that he is trying to create, accentuating his position as an ‘insider’. For some this view may seem voyeuristic as he appears to spy upon the people in the street from above. Yet here one can see DeCarava’s particular subjective eye for the community he is so familiar with come into play. A certain warmth and familiarity is present in many of his images, an effect which comes not just from his combination of distance and proximity, but is also a product of his reliance on soft tonal gradation rather than high contrast lighting. Indeed, DeCarava has been marked out singularly in this period, as ‘what is most striking about his imagery is the exception it makes to the postwar rule of grainy prints, contrasty papers and a harsh misanthropy among photographers’ such as William Klein.[50] The effect is not to create a romanticised view of Harlem, however–poverty and decline are visible in many of his works–nor is this simply a celebration of the survival of humanity enduring economic hardship and de facto segregation, although the rhetoric of social idealism can certainly be detected in some of his images. In fact DeCarava’s politics appear to be rooted in the importance of recognising African American individual subjectivity in the face of the dangers of social homogenisation and the importance of being able to use that individual subjectivity in the interest of art rather than as just political and social tools.

The relationship between aesthetic technique and political meaning can also be seen in DeCarava’s other portraits of street workers. In Between Cars (1961), for instance, a man is again pulling a large load of boxes. The viewer cannot see his face, or much of his body. Rather than moving across an expansive, space as seen in Fashion Central, the parameters through which this man must move are restricted as he pulls his loads through a seemingly impossible narrow gap between two parked cars which threaten to swallow up him and his cargo. Here DeCarava plays with shape and angle in his photography, as a visual illusion produced by the diagonal, top-down perspective of this image makes it appear as if the gap the man moves through is getting narrower and will conclude in a dead end. Sense tells us that, as in Man with two shovels, this must be a trick of the eye (or the camera), that the way must be passable, as there would otherwise be no reason for this man to bring his goods this way. Thus this image takes on symbolic meaning, gesturing towards the passage of African Americans through the American workforce, as, due to low wages and institutional racism, many failed to progress beyond this stage of manual labour. Moreover, the man is moving between one white car and one dark suggesting his social position between two separate and conflicting worlds. Here we also see the clash between classes as the black labourer winds his way through the possessions of the more affluent. This allusion to the juxtaposition of the working class and an aspirational middle class as represented by the automobile mirrors another of DeCarava’s photographs, Graduation (1949) where a young woman stands in the street surrounded by rubble and detritus alongside a billboard advertisement for Chevrolet cars.

Similarly, in Pepsi (1964) a male worker is seen collapsed across his crates of Pepsi cola bottles, with the sun beating down on him; the repeated Pepsi logo and the billboards behind him advertising Tempo cigarettes with ‘bonded charcoal’ threatening to overwhelm his bodily presence. Again, we cannot see his face and so he becomes defined by his labour, his working clothes and the product with which he is working. Above him and to the right an advertisement portrays a smiling middle class African American man wearing a suit and leisurely smoking a cigarette. This image and that of the cartoonish cowboy below it evokes myths of American freedom, expansion and self-reliance to contrast sharply with that of the exhausted labourer slumped over crates of Pepsi. The run-down state of the billboard itself (paint is splattered on it and nails are hanging loose) mocks the images of affluence, aspiration and freedom it surrounds.

Taken alone these images could appear as despairing rather than empowering as the African American body is drained of physical energy for the sake of economic consumption and commerce, and individual African American identity and agency is subsumed by the forces of the market and the low social position of working class African Americans. To some extent the majority of DeCarava’s labour images across his whole career subvert the idea of the heroic worker obtaining dignity and social recognition through their work as the men’s efforts are haunted by symbols of whiteness that hound and control their everyday existence—corporate logos and advertising, white figures of authority, historic monuments to American freedom and democracy, or merely the colour itself. Yet DeCarava’s emphasis on aesthetics over sociology; on natural light rather than technologically created artificiality; the subtle balance between distance, angle and intimacy; and an insistence on the reclamation of individual African American subjects and subjectivity, takes the oft-celebrated iconography of the male worker and makes him complex and multiplicitous. The public spaces of the street and the subway allow DeCarava to make a political and social critique of the treatment of African American men in the American labour system via a focus on aesthetics and the individual rather than on the deeds of Union organisations or acts of direct political resistance such as rallies, riots or strikes. These are not politically didactic images; they do not lecture on the social ills of African American existence. DeCarava’s social and political agenda is bound up in a subtle aesthetic statement, one that ruptures the hierarchical relationship between the viewer and viewed, and relies on the creation of subjective visions rather than the relaying of objective fact. By transforming these acts of potentially dehumanising labour into creative artefacts—photographs—DeCarava creates ambiguous artistic narratives in which ‘muscle and bone and sunlight upon the folds of clothing are enough to tell the story of’ a complex and multifarious ‘life’.[51]

University of Nottingham


[1] Roy DeCarava in Peter Galassi, Roy DeCarava: a Retrospective (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1996), p. 19.

[2] DeCarava in Ivor Miller, ”If It Hasn’t Been One of Colour’: an Interview with Roy DeCarava’, Callaloo, 13:4 (Autumn 1990), p. 857.

[3] Ibid., p. 847.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Richard J. Powell, Black Art: a Cultural History (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), p. 15.

[6] Miller, p. 847.

[7] William L. Van DeBurg, Black Camelot: African-American Culture Heroes in Their Times, 1960-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1997), p. 27.

[8] DeCarava in Val Wilmer, ‘Roy DeCarava: an Uncommon Beauty’, Ten.8, no. 27, p. 4.

[9] Isaac Julien in Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies (New York & London: Routledge, 1994), p. 16.

[10] Derek Price and Liz Wells, ‘Thinking About Photography’, Photography: A Critical Introduction, 3rd Edition (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 21.

[11] Miller, p. 852.

[12] Scott McQuire, Visions of Modernity: Representation, Memory, Time and Space in the Age of the Camera (London: Sage Publications, 1998), p. 5

[13] David Marriott, On Black Men (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), p. vii.

[14] Sara Blair, Harlem Crossroads: Black Writers and the Photograph in the Twentieth Century (Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 56.

[15] Ibid., p. 49.

[16] Miller, p. 852.

[17] Nicholas Natanson, The Black Image in the New Deal: the Politics of FSA Photography (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1992), p. 18.

[18] Ibid., p. 26.

[19] Richard Wright, 12 Million Black Voices (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2002), p. 43. DeCarava’s interest in the subjectivity and/or consciousness of an individual living within a community can be seen most effectively in his photobook The Sound I Saw (London: Phaidon, 2001) which matches a selection of his photographic back catalogue with a stream of consciousness-like poetic narrative that reads like a series of lyrical personal musings on the experience of living in Harlem.

[20] Miller, p. 841.

[21] Galassi, p. 27.

[22] Miller, p. 856.

[23] Ibid., p. 849.

[24] Michele Wallace, Dark Designs and Visual Culture (Durham & London: Duke UP, 2004), p. 186.

[25] Ibid., p. 191.

[26] Joel Meyerowitz and Colin Westerbeck, Bystander: a History of Street Photography (London: Thames & Hudson, 1994), p. 342.

[27] Robin D.G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994), p. 36.

[28] Interestingly, different reproductions of this image show slight differences in the amount of facial detail visible. The 1981 James Alinder edited collection Roy DeCarava shows the most detail, followed by the Peter Galassi Museum of Modern Art retrospective from 1996, then finally, the very dark reproduction in DeCarava’s own collection, The Sound I Saw, published in 2001. Although perhaps an incidental point to make, these discrepancies show the extent to which DeCarava and/or his publishers played with the tonal qualities of his works in order to achieve the right balance of light and shade.

[29] Martha Rosler, ‘In, Around and Afterthoughts (On Documentary Photography) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Richard Bolton, (Boston: MIT Press, 1992), pp. 303-343.

[30] Miller, p. 850.

[31] Stacey I. Morgan, Rethinking Social Realism: African American art and literature, 1930-1953 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004), p. 5.

[32] Amy Helene Kirschke, Aaron Douglas: art, race and the Harlem Renaissance (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995), p. 8.

[33] Ibid., pp. 5, 43.

[34] Celeste-Marie Bernier, African American Visual Arts (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 2008), p. 121.

[35] Jacob Lawrence in Ibid.

[36] Michael Hatt, ”Making a Man of Him’: Masculinity and the Black Body in Mid-Nineteenth Century American Sculpture’ Oxford Art Journal 15:1 (1992), p. 21.

[37] Bernier, p. 131.

[38] Maren Stange, ”Illusion Complete within Itself’: Roy DeCarava’s Photography’ The Yale Journal of Criticism, 9.1 (1996), p. 73.

[39] DeCarava in Conversations with Roy DeCarava, a film by Carroll Parrott Blue. First Run Features, New York, 1984.

[40] Henry Louis Gates Jr., Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (New York: Random House, 1997), p. xvii

[41] Galassi, p. 30.

[42] Kelley, p. 8.

[43] Ibid., p. 7.

[44] Miller, p. 847.

[45] Van DeBurg, p. 53

[46] Sherry Turner DeCarava, ‘Pages from a Notebook’ in Galassi, p. 54.

[47] Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York & London: Vintage Books, 1992), p. 50.

[48] Kirschke, p. 5.

[49] Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, p. 341.

[50] Ibid., p.342.

[51] Galassi, p. 30