The big picture: ​stepping towards the shadows in 1940s Harlem

·2 min read

Roy DeCarava’s picture of a woman all dressed up on a derelict street is rich in symbols and evocative of a troubled era

Roy DeCarava had been taking pictures in Harlem, where he grew up, for a decade when he came upon this scene of a young woman in the street in her graduation dress. DeCarava had mostly thought of photography as a means to an end – he had used a camera to produce aides-memoire for his painting. But around this time, 1949, his vocation changed and he became primarily a photographer.

Looking at this picture, and its uncanny symbolism, it is easy to see why. Harlem, during the civil rights years, was full of visual gifts from real life. The young black woman, briefly bathed in sunlight in her white silk, is stepping forward into a place of complicated shadows. Alone, she is flanked by an incomplete “Princ–” scrawled on a wall. Her eyes are drawn to the sleek lines of the Chevrolet advert, a promise of escape from the derelict streetscape, but an alternative means of transport, an antique trash cart, is also at hand. If you were staging Cinderella in racially divided New York in 1949, it would be hard to conjure a more evocative set.

This picture was among those that caught the eye of the poet and guiding spirit of the Harlem renaissance, Langston Hughes, when DeCarava paid him a visit in the summer of 1954. By then DeCarava had become the first African American to be awarded a John Simon Guggenheim fellowship, which allowed him to make pictures full time. Hughes was so struck by DeCarava’s work that he insisted his publisher produce a volume of it, for which he supplied an accompanying text. The Sweet Flypaper of Life launched DeCarava’s long and celebrated career documenting the everyday struggle of black America, up until his death in 2009. A new retrospective of his pictures in London demonstrates at every turn his belief that, as here, the best photographs “present a moment so profoundly a moment that it becomes an eternity”.

Roy DeCarava: Selected Works is at David Zwirner Gallery, London W1, until 19 February