Street Photography: Roy DeCarava and Charles “One Shot” Harris

February 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week, with deep gratitude I give homage to two great photographers.

When a photographer makes you see through his eyes, a view filled with compassion and a deep connection to people and place ~~ you know that photographer is touched with divine grace.  One such photographer is Roy DeCarava.

Many years ago I chanced upon a book of photographs accompanied by a fictional narrative, The Sweet Flypaper of Life.  Mr. DeCarava was the photographer and Langston Hughes was the writer.  The story takes place in Harlem in the early 1950s and is told from a grandmother’s point of view as she talks about her life, her children and her grandchildren.  The people I met in these photographs and Mr. DeCarava’s photographic aesthetics changed the way I looked through a lens.  His use of shadows and gray tonalities is unparalleled.  But even more importantly, he changed the way I looked around me.

Born in Harlem, he lived there for most of his years.  He was trained as an artist but turned to photography when he realized the odds against an African American man being accepted into the art world.  For almost six decades he photographed the everyday life of black people in America.  In 1952 he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, the first African American to do so.  In 1955 The Sweet Flypaper of Life was published and became a bestseller.  That same year his work was also included in the landmark Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

For many years Mr. DeCarava worked as a freelance magazine photographer for publications like Fortune and Newsweek.  He became an associate professor, then professor of art at Hunter College.  In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

Mr. DeCarava said his photography was about “The moment when all the forces fuse, when all is in equilibrium, that’s the eternal . . . that’s jazz . . . and that’s life.”

Charles “Teenie” Harris (also known as “One Shot”) was another great artist who spent his lifetime photographing his city, Pittsburgh.  He was just three years old when he was given a camera.  In his early 20s he bought his first professional camera; for more than 50 years he photographed African American life in then prospering Pittsburg, also known as “Steel City”.

By 1936 he was working as chief photojournalist for the Pittsburg Courier, which was an outstanding black news weekly.  He got the nickname “One Shot” because while other photographers would be shooting frame after frame of an event he came in and nailed it with “one shot.”

Whether on assignment, taking images of the urban landscape or working in his studio, Mr. Harris photographed everyone from ordinary people to visiting presidents (from Eisenhower to Kennedy), musicians (Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstein, Cab Calloway) and athletes (Joe Louis, Satchel Paige and Muhammed Ali).

The people of Pittsburgh were his people and he showed them in all their complexity:  working, playing and dreaming.  Steelworkers, bakers, railroad men and firefighters, children, old people, nightclubs and funerals, rich and poor:  he deftly, expertly witnessed with his camera and his heart.  Mr. Harris left an archive of over 80,000 images now housed at the Carnegie Museum of Art.  More importantly, he bequeathed a portrait of a city and a time that is no longer ~~ a portrait woven with dignity and understanding.

Just as Willy Ronis and Robert Doisneau spent their lives photographing their beloved city of Paris, Roy DeCarava and Charles Harris lovingly photographed their cities.   Their intimate connection to people and place, their pride and their dignity inspire me.

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If you’re coming to NYC, book a unique street photography experience in avant garde, gutsy Brooklyn ~~

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