Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes's The Sweet Flypaper of Life
In 1955, just as the celebrated Family of Man exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in NY, Simon and Schuster published The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a small volume of photographs by Roy DeCarava with text by Langston Hughes. While Family of Man was later on widely criticized as an attempt to show the universality of human actions in daily life regardless of race and class, The Sweet Flypaper of Life remains a lauded title that conveys Harlem as a microcosm within the larger city. DeCarava's images and Hughes's text offer a record of the transformation of black life from rural to urban in the early-to-mid-20th Century, and the social and personal trauma associated with that transition.
The Sweet Flypaper of Life
(First Print Press in association with David Zwirner Books, 2018)
The streets DeCarava shows us are real, dirty, broken oil stained sidewalks; there's water running, tenements torn down and newly built housing projects. Instead of the dream of Harlem, we are shown the reality of poverty associated with this heterotopic space. Yet, as Hughes's narrator repeatedly tells us, "there is so much to see in Harlem!"
In 1952, Harlem-born-and-raised DeCarava was the first African-American photographer to receive a Guggenheim fellowship, yet initial attempts to publish his work were declined by publishers, claiming that they were too radical and subversive to make a profit, even while acknowledging their artistic brilliance. It was only after Hughes, by then a well-established poet and writer, stepped in, following a chance encounter with the photographer on the street, that they were able to create a marketable package. Re-released in 2018 by First Print Press in association with David Zwirner Books, the original paperback edition went on to sell over 35,000 copies within its first year.
In DeCavara's Graduation (1949) a bride-like figure crosses the frame divided into starkly contrasting angles of light and darkness. As she faces the afternoon sun in her white gown, adorned with flowers in her hair, she is isolated in a vacant lot covered with rubble and trash. The young woman's coming-of-age is likened to that of Harlem's, full of promise and hope for the future, yet verging on the uncertainty of shadow: the era of desegregation and struggle for human rights that is yet to come. The image reflects this transitional historical moment in a quietly subversive way.
Children are intimately depicted in the book, either succumbing to the camera or strikingly unaware of it. One outstanding portrait shows a young boy standing on the sidewalk looking straight at the camera in the midday sun, leaning against the stoplight, his eyes covered by shadow. In the background, a mother and her three children, visibly white, walk in the opposite direction. Other than a few exceptions, the book offers an almost entirely Black representation of Harlem at this transitional moment. Flypaper not only showcases DeCarava's distinct fly-on-the-wall style, but it also captures something of the nature of blackness. While the photographs share with August Sander's encyclopedic People of the 20th Century an aestheticization of professions derived from an impulse of collection and categorizing the world, DeCarava's images are also choreographed according to Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment," through carefully organized compositions, Parisian-like nightlife scenes that unfold a drama towards which the whole setting is directed.
No stranger to photography, Hughes had previously collaborated with Cartier-Bresson in Mexico-City in the 1930's. Given free reign by DeCarava, Hughes was to choose from his body of work which photographs to narrate. Although this is a collaboration between two artists who shared much in relation to their socio-cultural milieu, the book betrays a discrepancy: the text is a fictional personal narrative whereas the photos render a reality constituted by social conditions. Hughes offers a story by Sister Mary Bradley, a kind of family album, evoking the tone of a southern grandmother, sentimental and nostalgic. "Lord, I'm so tangled up in living, I ain't got time to die," Sister Mary says at the start of the book. Hughes adopts this absent-present, elegiac feminine voice to accompany his gaze in a mostly descriptive style that meanders through the people, places, and customs of young and vibrant Harlem. The voice of the grandma is already plural, she is a composite of different voices.
The photographs show a different story, one often at odds with Hughes's homely account. The pictures appear in different sizes and placements across the pages as in a dream montage, full of disjointed transitions. The authorial voice of the book is just one part of this montage. Hughes often employs a colon at the end of his captions as a segue to the photograph, positioning the image as the completion of his textual thought. "She works, and she works hard, and sometimes when that girl gets uptown Ada's so tired she goes to sleep:" is followed by an image of a woman sleeping slumped over in a chair. Certain sentences have a more ambiguous relationship to the narrative voice, during which the photograph functions as a punctuation mark completing a sentence. "Every so often, ever so once in a while, somedays a woman gets a chance to set in her window for a minute and look out" written below an image of a woman backlit in a windowsill. In this way, the images double as language. This is most striking in the book's very last image, that of an elderly woman dressed up and smiling proudly at the camera. The portrait is captioned, "Here I am," suggestively showing the narrator, Sister Mary, articulated doubly by the combination of text and image.
In both the original and new edition, Hughes's text replaces DeCarava's own artwork titles, which the new edition may have benefited from adding as an index. Although Hughes's text most often does not constrain the images, it does modify them to make them more "accessible." This textual narrative functions like a smoke screen: reading the images without actually noticing or registering their full complexity.
At the time, readers sought to engage with this book through literary means, their tools for reading images were vastly different than those we have today. Nowadays we value photography for and by itself. Today's viewers are more adept at consuming images on their own terms, and much more, as they know how to read them.