Intangible Mentors: Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes
Without a starting point, a foundation, inspiration, the artist has nothing. A book that has deeply inspired me and influenced the direction of my work is a collaboration by two of the most esteemed artists of the Harlem Renaissance. I got a hold of it by visiting that cool place long forgotten where you can get all types of cool shit, FOR FREE! The library! Language Arts class gave many of us our introduction to Langston Hughes; a poetry pioneer known for works such as " Montage of a Dream Deferred" and "The Weary Blues". Roy Decarava's work is lesser know, but equally important as he focused on elevating the depictions of the Black American by utilizing artist expression over mere documentation. In his application for the Guggenheim Fellowship, he wrote " I do not want a documentary or sociological statement" his goal was "a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding of Negroes which I believe only a Negro photographer can interpret". These statement highlight his place as a pioneer in what is still a major part of our struggle today; representation of our culture by the people live it.
"The Sweet Flypaper of Life" came together when Decarava showed a portfolio of images he had created of everyday life in Harlem to Langston Hughes. Upon seeing the images, Hughes thought the impact of these images could be heightened if juxtaposed with a story. The story created gave deeper context into what life was like in 1950's Harlem and told from the perspective of an older woman.
To see this from a book published in 1955 confirmed a few things for me:
1. "Nothing is new..."
I've always been interested in producing essay style work, just not the rigid, dull type. When I first read Langston Hughes in middle school, the dialect he spoke in thru his writing let me know everything doesn't have to stick to a specific formula based off what we were taught. This gave the writing a different tone and a sense of place and environment for me. Remembering this, I knew I wanted my photographic essays to embody a similar spirit, one that allowed the subjects voice to be heard, more than my own. When trying to decide how I would approach this type of work, my inclination that I wasn't the first to have such a "genius" idea was confirmed when I found this book.
2. "Artists should collab more"
To see this work in it's completed form, it looks like two great artists decided to stay in there lane and let the other do what he does best. Being a filmmaker has slowly taught me just how collaborative art can be, however; other forms of art such as writing, painting, illustration, etc often seem so singular and isolated. This book would be dope with the lone contributions of either man, but it is a masterpiece with their powers combined.
3. "Change the rules your damn self"
Traditional photo essay is supposed to let the images stand alone a bit more, without much influence from the author about it's meaning. I think this book does a great job of adhering to that rule but creating more of it's own along the way. This story tells us more than surface information, it makes us feel as if we know these people. The words don't just describe and narrate, they amplify the impact of the images and lend context that I think is important to understanding work centered around black culture on a deeper level. A lot of us aren't exposed to art growing up or even as grown ups, so we often have to figure out what we see on our own. If you show some of these photos to anyone of any age right now, they could potentially just see photos of poor black people with babies. But, with the words of Langston Hughes you now have an understanding for a way of life and how it was experienced by those who came before you. Art devoid of explanation has allowed it to maintain it's ability to separate people by class and education. Art should be for everyone.
Although I haven't had a lot of experience with physical mentoring in my journey to become a better artist, the tools we have today in the digital and analog world have allowed me to take the knowledge and work of the greats and use it to grow on my own terms. Being aware of this knowledge and maintaining a thirst to seek it out I think has benefitted me just as much as a classroom or studio setting. At the end of the day, it's all about practice and application. A piece of info I always pass along is that everyone should study those they admire and the study the people who they admire. Eventually you will land on ideas and work that you can call your own from mixing all these ideas. There is a lot I'm still figuring out, but this book has served as the lynchpin I needed to focus my interests in a particular method of presentation for the longterm. For that I am forever grateful to my intangible mentors, Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes.