RARE has been bustling with activity lately: “Matter/Giacometti” just closed, “James Evanson” will open next Thursday (see our exhibition page for more information), but this week we’re excited to present the initial installment of our special pop-up exhibition program, showcasing a superb collection of first edition photobooks. In honor of Black History Month, we want to spotlight one of those books in particular—The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a seminal rumination on Harlem—and its esteemed photographer, Roy DeCarava, one of the most respected artists, activists, and educators of his generation.
A first edition copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life is now on display at RARE
Born in Harlem in 1919, DeCarava began taking photographs as research for his fine art prints, but soon made the medium his main creative outlet, and—drawn to the uniqueness of the community he grew up in—turned his lens on his own urban surroundings and the African-American experience. As DeCarava noted in a 1982 New York Times interview, one of his reasons for this focus was “that black people were not being portrayed in a serious and in an artistic way.”
In 1952, DeCarava became the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship (1952); his application for the award, in part, stated that his goal as a photographer was “a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret.” The prize money allowed DeCarava to concentrate full time on Harlem as a subject, and in 1955 he collaborated with Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes on his first book, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, pairing his deeply felt images with Hughes’ “how good it is” prose poetry to create a fictional yet realistic tale of daily life in their unique neighborhood. “I always wanted an emotional content or ambiguity that allowed people to explore what they were experiencing,” DeCarava explained in a 1998 interview for the Baltimore Sun.
Although produced relatively early in his career, The Sweet Flypaper of Life exemplifies the type of work for which DeCarava is best known, and for the remainder of his career he devoted himself to both illuminating the lives of African-Americans through his images—most notably through his series on jazz musicians—and strongly advocating not only for photography’s status as a legitimate art form, but for African-Americans’ place within it. His artistic philosophy is perhaps best expressed by this 2001 statement: “It doesn’t have to be pretty to be true. But if it’s true it’s beautiful. Truth is beautiful. And so my whole work is about what amounts to a reverence for life itself.” DeCarava’s work was the subject of at least 15 solo exhibitions in his lifetime, and in 2006 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. He passed away on October 27, 2009, at the age of 89.