I'm writing a conference paper about a triumph that turned into a tragedy. The triumph was "A Harlem Famly," one of the most powerful photo-essays that Gordon Parks ever produced. When Life published it in 1968, it moved many of the magazine's readers to reach out to the troubled and impoverished family. Within a year, however, the law of unintended consequences had intervened. The aftermath, for which Parks and Life were not directly responsible, was tragic. [Update, 2 January 2013: I've just published a version of the paper on "A Harlem Family." You can read it, here.]
Writing about Parks' relentlessly bleak essay has me thinking about the incomparable Roy DeCarava, the greatest of all photographers of Harlem. DeCarava's Harlem and Parks' Harlem were radically different things. In large part, that's because DeCarava was an artist, not a photojournalist, and was free to see Harlem as something other than a problem.
In particular, I've been looking at DeCarava's own Harlem photo-essay, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a 1955 book that was the product of his collaboration with the poet Langston Hughes. The photos and text are warm and intimate without being sentimental. Neither DeCarava nor Hughes shies away from the realities of poverty and racial injustice, but they don't allow these things dominate their picture of the neighborhood and its people. Love, family, tears, hard work, dancing, jazz, Jesus -- this is Harlem in the round. You'll see it in the wonderful short video below.
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It's no knock against Parks' that he didn't create a picture of Harlem that was as rich and finely textured as DeCarava's. He was photojournalist investigating aspects of the Negro problem for a magazine that catered to a vast, largely white audience. It's no surprise that his essays showed struggling families, not happy ones, and Harlem gangs, not its Strivers' Row. (By the way, I'll post a version of the paper on "A Harlem Family" on this blog later in the week. Update: You can now read it, here.)
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National Public Radio's [NPR] Picture Show photography blog published a beautiful tribute to DeCarava on the occasion of his death in 2009. (A slideshow of his images accompanies it.) And you can listen to a 1996 NPR interview with him, here.
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The relationship between DeCarava and Parks wasn't always easy, for reasons that had to do with differing ideas about how to address the racial discrimination that black photographers routinely faced. You'll find some information about this in "Roy DeCarava: 'Through Black Eyes,'" an important 1970 essay by A.D. Coleman.