December 9, 1919 – October 27, 2009

NEW YORK, NY – Roy DeCarava, the renowned master photographer and pioneer in the art of photography, died Tuesday, October 27, 2009 of natural causes, announced his wife and long-time collaborator Sherry Turner DeCarava. He was 89.

“Roy’s work was the expression of his personal and individual ethos and it was a sensibility that was classical in its visual construction and deeply empathic to the nuances and subtleties contained within the human heart,” said Mrs. DeCarava. “He was an elegant man with intense dark eyes and a seriousness of purpose that led him to work as a solo practitioner for his entire life.”

Mr. DeCarava began his career as a painter and turned to photography in the mid 1940s to gather information for his canvases.  By 1952, he had fully embraced the new medium and produced a body of work for which he was the ninth photographer to be awarded the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship. In 1955, he co-authored with the poet Langston Hughes The Sweet Flypaper of Life, an award-winning pictorial fiction about the lives of people in Harlem. The book was re-published in several editions, appearing in English, German, Chinese and Czechoslovakian; it was reissued in 1984 by Howard University Press.

Unlike many photographers of his day, Mr. DeCarava did not intend that his photos be viewed as visual documentation but rather as artistic expressions in their own right so that his images were, in his words, "serious," "artistic," and universally "human."  Whether photographing the Scottish countryside or the heart of New York City, the deep connection he felt to the lives of people everywhere is evident in the integrity of his images. Among the many subjects his camera focused upon, he expressed an early desire to address the lack of artistic attention given to the lives of Black Americans, illuminating the aesthetic and human qualities of each individual life through the lens of his perceptions.

Mr. DeCarava was the subject of more than 25 solo exhibitions and participated in dozens of group exhibitions around the world. His work resides in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, the National Portrait Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC; the Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, TX. His work also has been seen in retrospectives from San Diego to London, Paris and beyond.

Born in Harlem December 9, 1919, Mr. DeCarava was educated in the city’s public schools.  Following a brief period of work on the W.P.A. art project, he was admitted to Cooper Union Institute where he studied painting, architecture and sculpture.  Later, he enrolled at the Harlem Art Center and The George Washington Carver Art School, studying with Meyers, Elton Fax, Charles White and Norman Lewis.  While accomplishing his own artistic work, Mr. DeCarava continued for 20 years as a freelance editorial photographer.  He worked for Columbia, Prestige, ABC Paramount, and Atlantic records and for major pictorial magazines, including Sports Illustrated and Scientific American, until the 1970s, when he began his academic career as Professor of Art at Cooper Union.


Mr. DeCarava received honorary degrees from Rhode Island School of Design, the Maryland Institute of Art, Wesleyan University, The New School for Social Research, The Parsons School of Design and the Art Institute of Boston for contributions to American art.  Among other professional recognitions were the Century Award in Photography from the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts, the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement from the National Arts Club and the Master of Photography Award of the International Center of Photography. In 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Art from the National Endowment for the Arts, presented by President George W. Bush.   

Mr. DeCarava resided in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, NY, with his wife, art historian Sherry Turner DeCarava. The two first met when she arranged to interview him for a public program at the Brooklyn Museum. They subsequently married in 1970. They collaborated for over 40 years on Mr. DeCarava’s exhibitions and publication projects. 

“Roy photographed for himself, and ultimately produced a body of work that enshrined the social contradictions of the 50s, the explosion of improvisational jazz music in the 60s, the struggle for social equity, the bold faced stridency of the 70s and 80s, only to turn to even more contemplative and serene realities during the later years of his life," Mrs. DeCarava said in a statement. "Powerful and serene, his approach to the medium heralded a new, artistically and emotionally driven context for creative photography.  His contribution to American photography and culture is manifold.” 

Photograph (c) Sherry Turner DeCarava. All rights reserved.