Roy DeCarava obituary

American photographer whose work captured the everyday street life of his native Harlem

When Roy DeCarava, the US photographer, who has died aged 89, selected the images for a book that would record his profound interest in jazz and those who perform it, he chose photographs of wives and children, of a packed suitcase lying open on a bed, of washing hung across a tenement alley, of everyday street scenes, interleaved with images of the musicians. Instead of creating the standard iconography, he examined the layers and textures of the lives that he had witnessed while growing up in Harlem, New York.

The Sound I Saw, as the book was called when he compiled it in 1962, was not published in its proper form until 2001. It had been intended to follow up his great success of 1955, The Sweet Flypaper of Life, in which his photographs of daily life above 110th Street ran alongside a matching narrative created by Langston Hughes in the voice of a fictitious black woman, Sister Mary Bradley. Already celebrated as the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes had chosen DeCarava as his collaborator when he was a young man working as an illustrator in an advertising agency. DeCarava's black-and-white photographs made an immediate impact.

When The Sound I Saw was finally published, it too featured a running commentary. This time, however, the words were the photographer's own, spun into a free-form poem. Here, he could describe how the slanting parallel planes of fire-escape ladders running up the side of a tenement building reminded him of a sequence of solos played by "young men/tensioned tight with too many burdens/not theirs alone".

Although darkness was the superficial characteristic of DeCarava's images, light was his instrument. "The difference between me and other photographers," he told Val Wilmer in a 1987 interview, "is that I refuse to accept darkness as a limitation." There may have been sadness and struggle in his photographs, but there was also warmth, nobility, laughter and physicality, the latter particularly evident in his striking images of dancers.

He was born in Harlem, the son of a Jamaican woman, Elfreda Ferguson, who had arrived alone in New York at the age of 17, and a father he never knew. His mother worked to support herself and her small son, paying for his violin lessons (DeCarava later took up the saxophone) and encouraging his interest in art. She owned a Box Brownie camera, with which she frequently photographed friends and neighbours.

As a boy, DeCarava shone shoes and delivered bags of ice to help make ends meet. When he entered high school, it was the Harlem annex of a vocational establishment, the Textile high school. A subsequent transfer to the main premises, in midtown Manhattan, brought him into contact with the study of the history of art; he and a friend were the only black students.

In 1938 he won a place at the Cooper Union School of Art, but after two years, the cold blast of racism induced him to move his studies to the Harlem Community Art Centre, sponsored by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). "Paul Robeson had an office there," he remembered, "and Langston Hughes was a familiar presence." He also took a job in the WPA's poster department, where he learned silk-screen printing.

He had married for the first time when, in 1942, he was drafted into the army. Posted first to Virginia and then to Louisiana, he reacted so badly to southern prejudice that he suffered a breakdown. "The only place that wasn't segregated in the army was the psychiatric ward of the hospital," he remembered. After a medical discharge he returned to New York to study painting and drawing at the George Washington Carver Art School, devoting most of his time to printmaking. His first camera was bought as a tool with which to gather material for his prints, but by the end of the 1940s he had abandoned printmaking in favour of photography.

While earning his living as an illustrator, he took photographs in the subway and on the street, influenced by Henri Cartier-Bresson. In 1950 his first exhibition of photographs led to a meeting with another great photographer, Edward Steichen, then director of the Museum of Modern Art's photography department. Steichen bought three of DeCarava's prints for the museum, included him in group exhibitions, and supported his successful application for a Guggenheim fellowship in 1952, the first awarded to an African-American photographer.

In his proposal DeCarava indicated his desire to photograph the people of Harlem "morning, noon, night, at work, going to work, coming home from work, at play, in the streets, talking, kidding, laughing, in the home, in the playgrounds, in the schools, bars, stores, libraries, beauty parlours, churches, etc…" Crucially, however, he added: "I do not want a documentary or sociological statement, I want a creative expression…" Hughes's admiration of the results led to the proposal to link almost 200 of DeCarava's photographs with his own text in The Sweet Flypaper of Life.

The year the book appeared DeCarava opened a photographers' gallery at his apartment on the Upper West Side, only the second of its type in the city, exhibiting the work of Harry Callahan, Berenice Abbott, Jay Maisel and others. It closed in 1957 and a year later DeCarava gave up his day job to become a full-time photographer, staying afloat by taking magazine work – much of it for Sports Illustrated, but also for Newsweek, Fortune and Good Housekeeping, for whom he photographed Malcolm X.

There were commissions for album sleeves, notably for Miles Davis's recording of the music from Porgy and Bess (1958), for which DeCarava took a soft-focus colour shot of the trumpeter sitting next to his girlfriend, the dancer Frances Taylor; their heads were omitted from the frame, emphasising the emotion implicit in the relaxed relationship between the two figures. In 1962 he was hired to take photographs on the set of the boxing film Requiem for a Heavyweight; its star, Anthony Quinn, bought 200 of the resulting prints.

By that time DeCarava had moved to a loft in the garment district, its windows providing a vantage point from which many of his distinctive high-elevation street shots were taken. Down on the Sixth Avenue sidewalk he took pictures of black people sweeping and hauling. When he started taking pictures, he said in a 1996 radio interview, "there were no black images of dignity, no images of beautiful black people. There was this big hole. I tried to fill it."

His striking portrait of a young black woman at the March on Washington in 1963 was among many fine pictures taken at events connected with the civil rights struggle. But his uncompromising spirit often brought him into conflict with others. As a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers' Committee to End Discrimination against Black Photographers, his attempt to persuade Life magazine to hire more black photographers ended in acrimony when the magazine's only photographer of that description, Gordon Parks, declined to endorse the action. DeCarava's response was to become the founding chairman of the Kamoinge Workshop (its title borrowing the Kikuyu word for "collective effort"), which fostered the work of many young black photographers, including Beuford Smith.

DeCarava's public refusal to contribute to the exhibition Harlem on My Mind, mounted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, prefaced protests against the show. In a review for Popular Photography, he claimed that it represented the view of white curators who "have no great love or understanding for Harlem, black people, or history".

In 1978 he took a job teaching photography at Hunter College, New York, and, in 1996, the city's Museum of Modern Art mounted a retrospective of his work, curated by Peter Galassi, Steichen's successor. "Staying close to home, he has all but ignored the vast world beyond, finding joy and trouble enough in his own world," Galassi wrote.

DeCarava died in the Brooklyn home he shared with Sherry Turner, an art historian he married in 1971. She survives him, with their three daughters.

• Roy Rudolph DeCarava, photographer, born 9 December 1919; died 27 October 2009


Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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