This born in Harlem who ‘came of age during

 

This essay is concerned with ‘Five men’ an artwork by Roy
DeCarava, an African American photographer (1919-2009) born in Harlem who ‘came
of age during the Harlem Renaissance’ (Chakravorty,
2016), a flowering ‘of African American culture, manifesting in… art’ (History.com Staff, 2009), a time
where African American life and art was enshrined in activism and philosophy (Mecklenburg and Powell, 2012). To understand this
image, one must understand the context within which it was made. It is an image
not approached with the same modernist style and realism (i.e what one might
see with instantaneous sight), as was typical of its time in America, but with
DeCarava’s unique perspective of Harlem. Comparing ‘Five Men’ to the innovative
works and the theory of the Avant-garde; the ways in which DeCarava and artists
such as Pablo Picasso, Vladimir Tatlin, and Kazimir Malevich created a
counter-discourse in art. Specifically, discussing the circumvention of the present
styles and themes in art of the period, their unmasking of the boundaries in
art, their insistence on their work’s treatment as art and the significance of the time surrounding their work’s
production. All artworks referenced in this essay can be found at the end.

‘Five Men’ was made in 1964, a
year wherein many pivotal factors surrounding and determining the US’ history
and future, respectively, were determined; the mourning of JFK’s assassination
(Nov. 22, 1964), the escalation of the war in Vietnam, the Freedom for Summer
Project pushing issues surrounding race and inequality to the forefront of the
mainstream media and public discourse (Metzger et
al., 2014). This is the year ‘American culture fractured and eventually
split along ideological lines’ (Simons, 2014), arguably
the most pertinent of these ideological lines being those within the realms of
racial politics, including the signing of the Civil Rights Act by Lyndon
Johnson, JFK’s replacement as president. The Klu Klux Klan (KKK) remained a
domineering force in the South and black people in states such as Mississippi
and Alabama were murdered, segregated, subordinated, and still awaiting a
gradation of civil rights – purely as a result of their race (Metzger et al, 2014). Consequently, acts of white
supremacist terrorism in the South were not uncommon. One of which, the 16th
Street Baptist Church bombing (Sept. 15, 1963), a KKK perpetrated church
bombing where, upon the explosion, four African American girls are killed and
fourteen others are injured during church services (CNN
Library, n.d.), had a memorial service in Harlem, 1964. Roy DeCarava,
aware of this, found motive in ‘his political understanding of the treatment
of black people and their response to injustice’ (DeCarava,
1990), and out of it came ‘Five Men’.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!


order now

Whilst, in a literal sense, the
photo depicts five men, only one of which is completely unobscured, “it is not
the subject matter which interests DeCarava as much as his perception of it”
(DeCarava, 1996 quoted in Kennedy, 2009).
DeCarava perceived these men not just as men, but as victims of injustice, societal
maltreatment and abuse, yet strong and serious men; men who finally deserved ‘a
portrayal in a serious and artistic way’ (DeCarava,
1982, quoted in Chakravorty, 2016), as black men. DeCarava immortalises them and what they represent in
his signature aesthetic; velvety greys seamlessly through sullen blacks in a
way that can only be reproduced with analogue means (light), with very little
to no white – an aesthetic so intent on its exploration of shadow, many visual
elements appear as so subtle they would be impossible to absorb in a mere
glance. Although the image alone does not reveal that the five men shown are retiring
from the aforementioned memorial service, the tension and intensity of the
situation, the indignant and discontented consciousness of the image carries
through. This is an image with which DeCarava, through his “emotional” printing
(DeCarava, 1984 in Conversations with Roy DeCarava,
1984) has strived to eliminate “anything that comes between you and the
idea” (ibid, 1964). The emotion, both in the
subjects and in DeCarava, forms a vital image, in a time where black people are
seen as unworthy subject matter and DeCarava has achieved “the kind of
penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which… only a Negro
photographer could interpret” (DeCarava, 1952,
quoted in Chakravorty, 2016).

Whilst it is the Russian Avant-gardistes
who’s work can be most closely associated with social class, Russia having seen
a communist revolution in 1917, the Avant-garde found a consistent interest in
class divisions and their effect on art and society. This is evidenced very
early, in 1912, in works of Cubist collage or papier collé by Picasso. Picasso, not unlike DeCarava in his
photographing of Harlem, is also credited for his ‘drive to find aesthetic
experience at the margins of what was socially regulated’ (Foster et al., 2016:126). His explorations of ‘”low”
forms of entertainment and unregimented spaces’ (Crow,
cited in ibid, 2016:126) also have inherent class ties – “low” being of
the working class. While it may seem contrived to draw any comparisons between
Picasso’s use of cheap materials such as newsprints, it is not uncommon
knowledge that ‘race and class are intertwined in America’ (Savali, 2016). Thus, where DeCarava can be seen
photographing the pain found in black life in ‘Five Men’, he too can be seen as
an artist actively highlighting class struggle in his work. Critically
selecting what he makes an image of, and then how he prints it, in the same way
Picasso does with newsprints (for example, that contain articles on the war in
the Balkans amid socialist protest against it), and then collages them, to best
create a counter-discourse through aesthetic experience born out of social class
and an opposition to the hierarchical organisation of society with its core
roots in oppression.

‘Five Men’ also has an undeniably
collage like appearance, as a result of the significant underexposure of the
image, potentially in print or on film – likely a mixture of both. Although photographic
devices have made it absurdly difficult to achieve a correct exposure of black
skin with ‘the dynamic range of film emulsions… being calibrated for white
skin’ (Cole, 2016:146), DeCarava undoubtedly
underexposed to such a degree with authoritative intent. This innovative use of
artistic apparatus appearing out of social circumstance is further exhibited in
the Avant-garde with