Roy De Carava, who photographed Dean Chance for the article beginning on page 26 of this issue, was born in Harlem in 1919 and is best known for his deeply personal studies of people. "You should be able to look at me and see my work. You should be able to look at my work and see me," De Carava has said in a statement that is inescapably clear to anyone who saw his one-man show Through Black Eyes at the Studio Museum in Harlem.
De Carava, the first black photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, has been represented in many other shows, including the magnificent Family of Man compiled by Edward Steichen, a special admirer, and—in collaboration with the late Langston Hughes—he did an award-winning book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life. He has been making photographs for us since 1961, aiming his lens at subjects ranging from Soviet Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko to Little Irvy, the frozen whale.
Because he himself is black, De Carava—a superb photographer on any basis—is especially concerned over the problems of other black photographers. Too often, he believes, the black photographer is assigned to the special story to which a black man—and sometimes only a black man—can do justice. Often, after that special assignment is done, the black photographer is passed over for the bread-and-butter work that he needs to survive in his profession. Even in the sports world, where one would expect him to be established, De Carava reports that the black athlete greets him with surprise. Pleased surprise. "We don't discuss it," he says. "They just say, 'Wow! Damn! Glad to see you!' "
De Carava lays the responsibility for all this at the door of the photographic community itself. It is common for a man to begin as an apprentice but, as De Carava observes gloomily, regardless of color, when the apprentice turns into a competitor it's dog-eat-dog in a tight field, and the black apprentice, who particularly needs introductions, support and a vigorous hand up, is most effectively shut out when these things are withheld.
March 30, 1970
Like a lot of kids, Roy started with his mother's Brownie, later added a Leica, a painter's eye and a susceptibility to the influence of Cartier-Bresson. Even with that equipment, it took him over 20 years to establish himself. "Black photographers live in two worlds," he says. "We don't have the same illusions. We have to survive in the white world. We have to know it, on the pain of making a mistake. The white doesn't have to learn the black world that way, and I think we are, in consequence, a little broader."
In a field where the eye that does not truly see must fail on the profoundest levels, this necessary lesson will ultimately be worth the present high cost of the learning.