Reading the Shadows: the Photography of Roy DeCarava

exposure magazine
May 24 · 35 min read

(Fig. 1) ©Roy DeCarava, Man on Cart, 1966.
(Fig. 2) ©Roy DeCarava, Gittel, 1950.

What makes a good lie authentic? Perhaps how well it signifies, how well it dislodges the signified from the signifier and demonstrates the arbitrariness of standard meaning.

While Gates focuses his argument on African-American literature, his analysis is crucial to understanding Roy DeCarava’s work and probably that of other African American photographers as well. To take the image cited at the beginning, of the Man in the Cart, which appears to be a cage, it is no longer clear whether the chain-link signifier refers to entrapment or protection. Or perhaps more cleverly, what was initially thought of as entrapment may be reread as protection from the overly curious outsider. This new interpretation then suggest a further dislocation, as the meaning of the sign is questioned. Does the loss of privilege occur to the one who is caged in or to the one who is caged out?

(Fig. 3) ©Roy DeCarava, Cab 173.
(Fig. 4) ©Roy DeCarava, Atomic Energy, 1963.
(Fig. 5) ©Roy DeCarava, Untitled, 1959.

DeCarava is playing the game that Hurston describes so well — playful evasiveness. “Smothered under a lot of laughter and pleasantries” and art-world hype, his imagery is presented in two codes, one to be read by the fashionable art world and another which, rereading the first, more bluntly expresses his experience.²⁷

By Signifyin(g) on white folk, DeCarava robs white status symbols of their potency. He continually undercuts the glory of power, privilege, and glamour. And like the trickster, DeCarava stands outside the opposition he draws. In the image that fascinates Szarkowski, a woman’s leg with high-heeled shoe is barely visible in the upper left corner. So is there some drama being played out between these two figures? Like most of DeCarava’s images of white people, the photograph is a meticulously framed close-up. While the convention of the isolated, abstracted fragment frequently denotes high art sophistication, DeCarava employs it to magnify the signifiers. These “unexplained fragments” or “leftover” pieces are laid out in a blunt, overstated, humorous way, depicting the closed system, the mutual vacuous attraction of glamour and power. This image, like others, does not compare the races to each other but instead provides a critique of dominant white values. DeCarava photographs businessmen and well-dressed women, the “best” of white society. Images of wealth, prestige, and power are isolated, magnified, and ultimately deflated to lifeless apparitions. It is almost as if DeCarava is playing the dozens, a particular derisive form of Signifyin(g), on white folk, but no one understands the game.²⁸

(Fig. 6) ©Roy DeCarava, Three Men with Hand Trucks, 1963.
(Fig. 7) ©Roy DeCarava, Four Arrows and Towel, 1975.
(Fig. 8) ©Roy DeCarava, Boy Playing, Man Walking, 1966.

At the center of the composition in Boy Playing, Man Walking (Fig. 8) is a black man with his face turned toward the viewer. Next to him is a spray-painted image of a skull or ape’s head. In one sense it is as if the man is daring the white viewer: “So you think that I really look like that!” but the black outline of a head is spray painted on a white wall. Is it a white or black skull? In front and to the side of the man is a white child. His face is turned sideways and covered with the ubiquitous glasses. Is the boy young and innocent? The graffiti may have been painted by a boy not much older than this one. How young do belief systems start? Reading it from another angle, it posits that we are all alike, have skulls, and are descended from apes. Yet the black figure is manly, with the courage to face the viewer, where is the white figure is childish and will only look away.³¹

Another photograph, Sun and Shade, (Fig. 9) can be read as a direct argument against the black adoption of white codes. In this picture the sun casts a shadow through the middle of the image, dividing the pavement into a dark and a light section. On the lit side, a boy is running. It looks as if he is holding a soda can in one hand and with the other is pointing a gun at the raised hands of a defenseless female child in the dark. Though in most of his photographs sunlight symbolizes whiteness, here DeCarava places a black figure in the sun.

(Fig. 9) ©Roy DeCarava, Sun and Shade, 1952.
(Fig. 10) ©Roy DeCarava, Two Women, Manikin’s Hand, 1950.

Is the padlock to keep out the black thieves at night? Or will the women outside be protected from the ghastly white materialist menace? Are the women denied access to the material world, or is this world largely an elusive potentially evil apparition? Just who is really inside and who outside? Does the cage offer protection or entrapment? Or, void of their connotations of power and privilege, are the categories of insider and outsider meaningless? Just who can be said to be “other?”

In both Two Women, Manikin’s Hand and Man on Cart, the black subjects of the photograph look off to the side, past the frame of the picture, and not to an object identified with the white world. The viewer is placed in the position of making the comparison between the races, not the protagonists. We are not shown the protagonists’ faces and can only guess at what they are thinking.

(Fig. 11) ©Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, Sweet Flypaper of Life, 1955.
(Fig. 12) ©Roy DeCarava, Graduation, 1949.

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