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DeCarava, Roy

(born December 9, 1919, New York, New York, U.S.) American photographer whose images of African Americans chronicle subjects such as daily life in Harlem, the civil rights movement, and jazz musicians.

DeCarava studied painting and printmaking in New York City at the Cooper Union School of Art (1938–40), the Harlem Community Art Center (1940–42), and the George Washington Carver Art School (1944–45). He took up photography in the late 1940s, when he began a series of scenes of his native Harlem, aiming for “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.” In 1952 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in support of the project, the first African American photographer to receive the grant. Many of these photos were compiled in the book The Sweet Flypaper of Life (1955), with text written by the poet Langston Hughes. In 1958 DeCarava left his job as a commercial illustrator to pursue a career as a freelance photographer.

His interest in education led him to found A Photographer's Gallery, which tried to gain public recognition for photography as an art, in 1955, and an association of black photographers in 1963. He also taught at the Cooper Union School of Art, from 1969 to 1972, and at Hunter College from 1975. He is perhaps best known for his portraits of jazz musicians, which capture the essence of such legends as Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Billie Holiday in the midst of performances. These portraits, which he began in 1956, were shown in 1983 in an exhibit at Harlem's Studio Museum. In 1996 his work was the subject of a major traveling retrospective organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

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