Roy DeCarava was born in New York City’s Harlem, on December 9, 1919. From 1938 to 1940 he studied painting at Cooper Union Institute, from 1940 to 1942 painting and printmaking with Elton Fax at the Harlem Art Center, and drawing and painting with Charles White at George Washington Carver Art School in 1944. He originally purchased a camera (in 1946) to document his work in printmaking, but by 1949 photography itself was his sole artistic focus. He went on to establish himself as a post-war street photographer of daily life, specifically African-American life in New York. DeCarava was not the first photographer to shoot Harlem, but his commitment to interpreting it in artistic terms sets him apart from the history of social documentary established there.
His first photography exhibition was in 1950 at Mark Pepper’s Forty Fourth Street Gallery. There were 160 prints in exhibition, and Edward Steichen purchased three for the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. There Homor Page, a student of Steiglitz, befriended DeCarava and began discussing darkroom technique with him. Soon thereafter, DeCarava started to experiment with a darker tonal range. His studies of the New York jazz world, begun a few years later, further developed his penchant for dark printing. While the deep tones in his pictures sometimes push the edge of legibility, both true blacks and true whites are rare.
In 1952 DeCarava became the first African-American recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship. The year of the fellowship was remarkably fruitful, producing such important prints as Nightfeeding. At first rejected by publishers, photographs from the project were eventually published with the help of Langston Hughes in 1955 as The Sweet Flypaper of Life. Shortly thereafter, DeCarava opened one of the first galleries in New York devoted to photography, A Photographer’s Gallery, which would feature exhibitions of Bernice Abbott, Harry Callahan, and Minor White in the two years it was open. At the same time, he began a series on jazz musicians that would occupy him for a decade.