Roy Decarava 5 Men

This moment occurred during a memorial service for the children killed in a church in Birmingham Alabama in 1964. The photograph shows the men coming out of the service at a church in Harlem. The men were coming out of the church with faces so serious and so intense that I responded, and the image was made. — Roy Decarava

Roy DeCarava, 5 Men, 1964 from the 12 Photographs portfolio

DeCarava explained his feelings when taking the 1964 photograph of five men coming out of the service: “The motivation at that moment was my political understanding of the treatment of black people and their response to injustice… I wasn’t at the bombing, I wasn’t in the church, but I knew what it was and I wanted to make a picture that dealt with it. DeCarava has been described by one critic as a “poet of light” for his printing style and rich subject matter.

Roy DeCarava began his artistic career as a painter and print-maker, and initially began using a hand-held camera as a tool to aid in his sketches. Yet within only a few years, DeCarava embraced photography with fervor, embarking on a career in the medium in the late 1940s that would take him into the 20th century.  Imbued with a dark tonal range, DeCarava’s photographs provide keen insight to a deft eye intent on discovering visual truths. He illuminated integral components of mid-twentieth century urban life in New York. 

Born and raised in New York, DeCarava was Harlem’s photographer, as his honest and gripping photographs of the vagaries of modern life attest. Showcasing the urban environment in all of its gritty glory, DeCarava accentuated the daily activities of African-American men and women, avoiding sensationalist and off-center personas in favor of social realism. DeCarava describes his methodology as, “I want to photograph Harlem through the Negro people. Morning, noon, night, at work, going to work, coming home from work, at play, in the streets, talking, laughing, in the home, in the playgrounds, in the schools, bars, stores, libraries, beauty parlors, churches . . .”

Untitled, 1973

While not the first African-American photographer to chronicle Harlem, DeCarava quickly became its champion as the neighborhood morphed from the center of artistic and intellectual creativity during the Harlem Renaissance to an essential destination for Civil Rights luminaries and their messages of change. Imbued with a dark tonal range, DeCarava’s photographs provide keen insight to a deft eye intent on discovering visual truths.

DeCarava worked closely with Paul Taylor of Renaissance Press, as Paul layered ink on the plate to produce what they liked to call a ‘soul sucking black’.  The now famous Twelve Photogravures portfolio was released in 1990 in an of an edition of 50 plus 12 proofs and has long been sold out.

The collection currently has three prints from this powerful set.


 David W. Dunlap, Lens, New York Times

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