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Remembering Roy DeCarava's 60 Years Of Photos

The photographer, who died Oct. 27 at age 89, dedicated his decades-long career to capturing images of African Americans. Roy DeCarava's subjects ranged from daily life in his hometown of Harlem to the Civil Rights movement.


Other segments from the episode on October 30, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 30, 2009: Interview with Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglove; Obituary for Roy DeCarava; Review of the film "This is it."


Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
For The Swell Season, Life Imitates Art


This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli of, sitting in for
Terry Gross.

The 2007 movie “Once,” which told of young musicians in love, introduced a song
called “Falling Slowly.” It was sung by the film’s two stars, Glen Hansard and
Marketa Irglova, who also performed it at that year’s Oscars. They had fallen
in love while making the movie, and at the Academy Awards, they won for Best
Original Song.

The press embraced their love story as a sort of real life fairy tale, but it
wasn’t happily ever after. Shortly after the Oscars, their romance dimmed, but
their friendship and their musical partnership did not. Hansard and Irglova
continue to make music together. Their band, The Swell Seasons, has just
released a new album. It’s called “Strict Joy,” and here’s the opening song
called “Low Rising.”

(Soundbite of song, “Low Rising”)

Mr. GLEN HANSARD (Singer/songwriter, The Swell Season): (Singing) I wanna sit
you down and talk. I wanna pull back the veils and find out what it is I've
done wrong. I wanna tear these curtains down. I want you to meet me somewhere
tonight in this old tourist town, and we'll go low rising ‘cause we've gotta
come up, we've gotta come up, low rising, there’s no further for us to fall,
low rising, ‘cause I fear we've had enough, low rising, oh, for the love of

BIANCULLI: The movie “Once” presented Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova as
characters whose pasts closely resemble the people who play them. He is a
street musician from Dublin, and she is a recent immigrant from the Czech
Republic. They meet, share a love of music and performing and find themselves
connecting, both musically and personally.

Glen Hansard also is known for his work in the band The Frames. The writer and
director of “Once,” John Carney, used to be in The Frames. Terry spoke with
Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova last year. They began with the big song from
the movie, “Falling Slowly.”

(Soundbite of song, “Falling Slowly”)

Mr. HANSARD and Ms. MARKETA IRGLOVA (Singer/Songwriter, The Swell Season):
(Singing) I don’t know you, but I want you all the more for that. Words fall
through me and always fool me, and I can’t react, and games that never amount
to more than they’re meant will play themselves out.

Take this sinking boat and point it home. We’ve still got time, raise your
hopeful voice you have a choice. You’ll make it now. Falling slowly, eyes that
know me.


Glen Hansard, Marketa Irglova, welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the
Oscar and all the success you’ve had with “Once.” You co-wrote “Falling
Slowly.” Had you ever written a song together before writing for the film?

Mr. HANSARD: No, that was actually the first song we wrote together. And it was
one of those things where I’d been working on the song, and I wasn’t really
sure where I was going with it. All I had was, you know, it was diverse, and I
had an idea for the chorus. And it was only when I sat down with Mar, and I
played her the idea - because I was talking about a harmony in the chorus, and
she said, well, what if you take the lower one, or you take the higher one, and
I’ll take the lower one, and you know, on the moment where it goes…

Mr. HANSARD: (Singing) We’ve still got time…

Mr. HANSARD: And it was – for me it was, like, the key of what made the song
suddenly work. And then so I wrote the chorus with Mar, and then I really felt
like we had a solid song on our hand, and it was something that I could give to
John and feel confident with.

GROSS: Marketa, you were cast before Glen was. How did you get the part? You
hadn’t acted before.

Ms. IRGLOVA: No, well, John Carney, the director, approached Glen about this,
you know, as you know, about the idea for this film. And throughout the years,
that meant many years in cafes over teas and coffees, and this goes to the idea
of the film. And when the project was getting closer to happening, John said to
Glen, well, you know, the only thing is I have (unintelligible) for the male
part, but I can’t find a woman for the female part. I have trouble finding this
woman because I want it to be an Eastern European woman who can sing and play
piano and act. And you know, would you know any people, because you travel a

And Glen said well, yeah, I know a girl from Czech Republic, and she does play
piano and sing, and I’m sure she could pull off the acting, but the thing is,
she’s only 17, and John was looking for a 35-year-old woman, originally.

So John kind of thought that 17 years old was too young, but he decided to meet
me anyway. And so I just got on the plane to Dublin from Prague and met John,
the director, and just kind of played a few tunes on the piano for him, and
that was my audition, really.

He didn’t get me to read any lines or anything. He just cast me right then and
there. And that was it. I was part of the project.

GROSS: You were 17 when the movie was shot?

Ms. IRGLOVA: Yeah.

GROSS: Wow, you don’t look it. You really look older in it.

Ms. IRGLOVA: I know, it’s funny. Even now, people meet me in person, and they
tell me I look much younger than in the film, and it’s ironic because I’m now
older than I was in the film. It’s a funny thing.

GROSS: Since neither of you were really actors when you started making “Once,”
although Glen, you had a part in “The Commitments” as a member of the band. Did
you go seeking advice from people about how to act or how to behave in front of
a camera? Did you just learn from doing it? And if you got advice, like, what’s
the best thing that you were each told that actually helped you?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, the thing that I was told, and I can’t remember who told me
right now, somebody said to me: just remember that Marlon Brando was always
Marlon Brando. He wasn’t – like, the reason people hired him to be in films was
because he was Marlon Brando. And, you know, I kind of like the idea that no
matter what character you’re playing, no matter whether you embody it or not,
and there are many different styles of acting, of course, there are many
different styles, but this is the thing that I always, that resonated with me
most was the fact that just be yourself and embody the character. And I think
that for me, that meant that, I guess, my range as an actor was probably quite
limited, and let’s face it - I was pretty much playing myself in this film.

You know, I am a street musician. I was a street musician. You know, I did – I
fixed bicycles and not Hoovers – John changed that detail, I guess. When I went
to the bank to get my first loan for The Frames, the bank manager took out his
guitar and played me a song. So there are many details in this guy’s life that
are very similar to my own.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from the beginning of “Once,” and this is a scene
where Glen, you’re playing on the street, for money, but no one’s paying any
attention to you at all - until, Marketa, you walk over and start asking him
questions about himself and the music. Here’s the scene.

(Soundbite of film, “Once”)

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) This song you just played, you wrote it?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) Working on it.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) It’s not an established song?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) No, it’s not an established song.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) How come you’re not playing during daytime? I see you
every day.

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) You know, during the day, people want to hear songs they
know, just songs that they recognize. I mean, otherwise I wouldn’t make any
money. I play these songs at night. They wouldn’t listen.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) I listen.

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) Yeah, but you give me 10 cents.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) Will you do it for money, then? Why don’t you get a job
in a shop?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) I have a job in a shop. Listen, let me get back to this,
yeah? Nice to meet you.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) Who did you write this song for (unintelligible)?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) No one.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) (BEEP) Where is she?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) She’s gone.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) She’s dead?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) No, she’s not dead; she’s gone.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) Do you love her still?

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) Jesus, man.

Ms. IRGLOVA: (As Girl) You’re over her. Rubbish. No one who would write this
song is over her. I’m telling you, you play this marvelous song to her, you get
her back.

Mr. HANSARD: (As Guy) I don’t want her back.

BIANCULLI: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in a scene from “Once.” We’ll hear
more of their conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let’s get back to Terry’s 2008 interview with Glen Hansard and
Marketa Irglova. Their performance of the song “Falling Slowly,” from the 2007
movie “Once,” won that year’s Academy Award as Best Original Song. The duo,
under the name The Swell Season, has a new album out called “Strict Joy.”

GROSS: Glen, you started off as a street musician when you were in your teens.
You dropped out of high school to play on the streets. Where did you choose to
play? Like, what was a good street for you in Dublin?

Mr. HANSARD: Well for me, Grafton Street was the – it was a bit like, in
Dublin, if you can imagine, if – you know, the microcosm of your life, I
suppose. For me - I loved on the north side of the City. So Grafton Street was
on the south side of the city, and that for me made more sense because it meant
that I wouldn’t bump into anybody from school and that I wouldn’t bump into any
of my mother’s friends or my mother, indeed, because my mother was a fruit
seller on Moore Street(ph), which is on the north side of the city, and I
wanted to get as far away from anybody I knew as possible.

So I went over to Grafton Street, and also, Grafton Street was kind of the more
posh part of Dublin. So the chances of me having a career or getting beyond
just being a street musician were – I had better chances, if you like, on the
south side of the city because that’s kind of where all the artists lived, you

So I went over there, and it was a great – for me, it was the beginning of a
whole new education. I mean, I left school at 13. I went over there. The day I
left school, I went busking, and what started was I met a man who sold
magazines on the street. His name was Pete. And Pete was, you know, he prided
himself on the fact that he was a Dylanologist(ph).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: You know, he loved Dylan and loved everything about… And because I
was such a Dylan fan, this guy took me seriously because I was playing Dylan
songs that weren’t necessarily the ones from the greatest hits record. And so
this guy was, took an interest in me, and I guess took me under his wing, and I
remember going and living with him for a while, and he took me around to, like,
poetry readings, and pretty much from there on, I remember meeting this lady,
Philippa Garner, who was kind of a famous painter in Ireland, and she took me
out to her house in Kildare, which is in the countryside.

She lived in an old, converted schoolhouse that she had rebuilt. And I went and
lived with her for two years, and really, a whole new education began. I
remember staying at Seamus Heaney’s house when I was a kid, and getting to hang
out with poets and other musicians was really the basis of my artistic

GROSS: So what’s the best thing that happened to you on the streets?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, for me, I guess overall, it was my education. I learned how
to sing on Grafton Street. I learned how to entertain. When you are on the
street, you are a still point. You know, you’re part of the architecture,
you’re still - and if you stand still on any street in any city in any country
in the world, if you stand still long enough, every single person in that city
will pass you by.

So like, you know, I’d be busking, and Van Morrison would walk past as I was
singing a Van Morrison song, or, you know, Bono would go by or…

GROSS: Is that true? Really they’d go by?

Mr. HANSARD: Oh absolutely.

GROSS: Okay, so Van Morrison is walking by. What do you do? Do you say excuse

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: Not at all. No, with someone like Van, you would just give him his
space. And actually, ironically, the reason I guess he was passing by was
because we were, myself and my friend, were busking together, and we were
singing – because Van songs are amazing to busk.

So one day we were busking, playing one of his songs, and he passed by. But
actually, the irony was that we were busking enough money to go see him that
night. So actually we ended up busking up enough money to go see him.

Then the same thing happened to us with U2. We were busking up the money to go
see them one time, and we saw them the same day, which is very interesting.

GROSS: So Glen, when you dropped out of school at the age of, what, 14 so that
you could perform on the streets, what did your parents think of that?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, I’m very lucky in that my mother – again, my mother was
very, very liberal. She grew up in a very, very tight household where she had
to be home at a certain time, and you know, she had 12 brothers and sisters,
and I guess the family had to keep everybody, you know, herd them together, I
guess I would be like. So my mother grew up in the ‘60s, you know, and so
during that time, she wanted – she wanted basically to give her kids the
freedom that she never had.

So my mother was, like, very, very liberal. She said to me anytime you need,
you know, if you want it – you know, when I came home to her and said ma, I
really want to do music, my mother just said well, do it then, and she said
well, do it, and if you’re going to do it, do it properly. So go, you know, go
and earn a living from it and do it and get really involved in it.

So I was lucky, and my dad, my dad was – I guess my dad was one of those guys
who was – he worked hard, but he was a hard-drinking man and didn’t – and
supported in whatever we wanted to do but didn’t really play much of a role in
our lives except to say yeah, (unintelligible) son, go for it. So me dad was, I
guess, was on board with it, too.

I was very, very lucky. I mean, my headmaster in school, my head teacher, he
was a great guy. He – I was in his office so many times, and we talked and
talked, and I guess he was a smart guy.

He’s figured out that music was the one subject I really enjoyed talking about,
and because - he was – in his part, in his spare time, he was a DJ. And so
myself and himself would talk about Dylan and Cohen and Neil Young and all the
stuff that really impassioned me. And he basically said to me one day, he’s
calling me down to the office, and he says Glen, you know what?

You’re in this school. You’re not learning a thing. You’re frustrating all of
the teachers, and I know you love music. So I have an idea. Why don’t you go,
take your guitar, go over to Grafton Street or go to any street you want, but
start your musical career at the very bottom today.

He said, you know, go and, go and, you know, take your guitar out. And if in a
year, you’re not enjoying it, or it’s not working out for you, come back to
school, and I’ll figure out a way of getting you back into class, and you can
continue your education, he said, but I don’t think that your education is
going anywhere here.

He says, you know, you can tell me all the musicians who played on “John Wesley
Harding,” or you can, you know, you can tell me who produced the first two
Leonard Cohen records, but you can’t tell me the square root of nine.

And he says, so you’re not really any good to us here, and I’d like to see you
succeed. So he sent me home that day to take my guitar and go to Grafton
Street, and when I went home, I said to my mother, I dropped my school bag in
the hall, and I said to my mother: ma, I’m going to start my career as a
musician. And my mother was like, what, really? And I was like, yeah. She says,
well, go for it, son, and good luck.

GROSS: That worked out. And Marketa, how did your parents when you, at the age
of 17, took a break from school, left home, went to another country to make a

Ms. IRGLOVA: Well, first of all, like Glen’s parents, my parents are very
liberal themselves. So you know, it’s not like they ever restricted me much in,
you know, whatever I wanted to do. But I guess there was – you know, they were
always concerned, ever since Glen came into my life as a musician who left
school at 13. I think they’re always concerned that I would just forget about
school and try walk in his footsteps. And they were only concerned about that
because they wanted me to have something to fall back on in case music didn’t
work out or something, you know.

But at the same time, I think I was always – I always had a very good sense of,
that if I was quite sensible at home, and if I didn’t get into too much
trouble, then I would have that freedom, because they would trust me, and they
would kind of know that I’ll be all right on my own.

And so I stayed out of trouble, and I did all my homework in school, and for
that, I had the freedom to travel and then miss out on school at times. So, you
know, it was great. And they did – and my parents are very supportive, you
know, so they wouldn’t – would have never kind of stood between me and my
dreams or anything like that. So I’m very thankful to them for that.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another scene from “Once.” There’s a great scene
in what I think is a pub. It almost looks like a living room, but I think it’s
actually like a small pub, and everybody’s kind of eating dinner and drinking,
and the rule of the game here is that you have to be able to sing to be in on
this dinner and people just kind of alternate singing. And there’s a kind of
middle-aged woman and a middle-aged man, or slightly older man, who sing a few
bars in this sequence. And they have really interesting voices, and I was
wondering, like, who are they, and is this based on a real pub in Dublin?

Mr. HANSARD: Well, actually that room is where me and Mar live.


Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, and because we didn’t have money to hire a venue, we just,
we decided to have a party in our flat.

GROSS: No wonder it looks like an apartment, okay.

Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, that’s our place. That’s where we live. And also, the guy,
the guy I was telling you about earlier on, the guy, the first person I met,
the Dylanologist in Grafton Street, that’s Pete, and he’s the guy who sings,
and then the woman who sings is my mother.


Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, that’s my mother Catherine(ph). So, and again, how we did it
was instead of trying to hire a room and put lots of extras in it, we just
threw a party and invited all our friends over and filmed it for, like…

GROSS: I really liked her voice. You know, there was something vaguely Marianne
Faithful-ish about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: How interesting, Marianne Faithful.

GROSS: The older Marianne Faithful.

Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, yeah, well interestingly, Marianne Faithful used to live in
that flat, also.


Mr. HANSARD: Which you might have somehow picked up on, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HANSARD: We’re very lucky in that we live – one of the other people that I
met when I was younger was Marina Guinness, who’s part of the Guinness family
in Ireland. And – like Ireland doesn’t have royalty, but if we did have
royalty, it would have to be the Guinness family because they’re such a strong
and powerful family in Ireland, in a very nice way, and of course we all admire
them because we drink their product constantly.

It’s an amazing thing. So – but I’m really glad you pointed out the guy and the
woman because the guy is the guy I was talking about, who took me on board, and
I spent a lot of time with him when I was younger; and of course, my mother.

GROSS: Now we have to play that scene.

(Soundbite of film, “Once”)

Unidentified Man #1: Great to see you here. Can you sing?

Ms. CATHERINE HANSARD:(Singing) There’s one request I’ll ask of you. When your
liberty came, remember Mitchell(ph) far away. I come (unintelligible) in shame.

(Soundbite of applause)

PETE: (Singing) (Unintelligible) that once helped this heart of mine.

(Soundbite of applause)

GROSS: That’s a scene from “Once,” which stars my guests, Glen Hansard and
Marketa Irglova, who are both musicians and songwriters who are performing
together. Did your mother sing a lot when you were growing up?

Mr. HANSARD: Yes. My mother sang constantly when we were kids, and my father.
My mother used to win, like, she won a bunch of competitions when we were kids,
you know, in pubs, and you know, they never - my mother of course never took
singing as seriously as, say, I did, but - and my father. My grandfather was an
opera singer, and my grandfather sang. I remember my great-grandfather sang in
the same competition as James Joyce and beat him, apparently, in an opera

GROSS: Gee, wow.

Mr. HANSARD: Yeah, competition a long, long time ago. So music’s definitely
been in my family.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us, and
congratulations on your lives together and on the success of “Once” and your
music. Thank you.

Mr. HANSARD: Thank you very much.

Ms. IRGLOVA: Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, speaking to Terry Gross last year.
Their new album is the band The Swell Season, is called “Strict Joy” and has
just been released. I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
Remembering Roy DeCarava's 60 Years Of Photos

(Soundbite of music)


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Roy DeCarava, the man who became a famous photographer by taking pictures of
every day life in Harlem, died Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 89 years old.
DeCarava was born in 1919, and grew up in Harlem at a time when it was the
center artistic and literary life. His photographs, covering more than half a
century of Harlem, have been exhibited by many museums and collected in several

Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong and John Coltrane are some of the musicians he
photographed - at work and at play. In 1952, Roy DeCarava became the first
African-American photographer to win a Guggenheim Fellowship. It enabled him to
spend a full year taking pictures of daily life in Harlem.

Terry spoke with him in 1996. One of his Harlem photos from 1952 is called "Man
Coming Up Subway Stairs." The man looks like he's returning from a long hard
day of work. He's wearing a rumpled shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the
top button opened. He's carrying his jacket. He's biting his lower lip as he
walks up the stairs. Terry asked Roy DeCarava what led to that picture.

Mr. ROY DECARAVA (Photographer): I used to work - I was working nine to five
and I used to - with like everybody else, I woke up in the morning and went to
work and came home and I was tired. And I was very much aware of my fellow
riders and their appearances and their feelings, and I thought in a sense that
this was a remarkable experience, in the sense that these were the people who
went to work every day, worked hard, and their lives were rather circumscribed.
And in many ways, they were borderline in a sense in how they lived. And in a
way, I thought that their consistency and their perseverance was, in itself, a
rather heroic thing.

And so, that this - with that picture, which I sort of planned. I planned in
the sense that I'd seen these kinds of images every day for years and there was
no doubt that I would, when I decided to take a picture, that I would find one
that would come along. And so what I did, I established the hours from four to
six, so I had to find a place. So I opted for the entrance or the exit of a

But it had to be a - one of those subway stations that have disappeared. But
they had a kiosk, which is this overhead covering and the walls were made of
glass - wide glass. And I managed to find one - believe it or not - with a hole
in it so that I could stand on the side and wait for this gentleman, or person,
or woman to come up the stairs. And he eventually did, and he was perfect.

GROSS: What made him perfect?

Mr. DECARAVA: Well, he had all the things that one associates with being tired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: And yet, constant. I mean he was determined. I mean, either he
was determined to get home or maybe he was just determined to get up at the top
of the stairs, because he was very tired. And to prove it, when he got to the
landing, he rested, which gave me a chance to put another roll of film into the
camera; because at that time, I only had one exposure left and I was debating
whether I should wait until he got there or put in another roll.

So when he stopped to rest on the landing, I was able to put another roll of
film in, and so when he got there, I had plenty of film to in case I need to
take more than one. But fortunately, I only needed that one anyway.

GROSS: Now, did you ever find out who this man was and did he ever find out
that you took a now celebrated photograph of him?

Mr. DECARAVA: No, I don’t think so. People generally - I don’t know. I really -
I have no idea. This was taken a long time ago and I've never had anybody say
anything to me about it, so I imagine not.

GROSS: I'd like to ask you about the photograph that on the cover of your
Museum of Modern Art catalog.

Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it's a picture of a woman walking down the steps taken, I believe,
in the early 1950s.

Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And the photograph ends at about her, just right above her waist.

Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So basically you see her coat, you know, the bottom half of her coat.
You see one arm; you see two legs sticking out from under this long coat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: We have no idea who she is or anything about her. But in a way, it
reminds me of the kind of image I see a lot. Like, if I'm looking down or if
I'm looking up, but I'm not looking up far enough...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: see a person's whole body. Tell me why you framed it this way? Why
we're just seeing the bottom half of her body?

Mr. DECARAVA: Well, because the body talks to you. The body says things to you.
You don’t have to see a face to know. You can see a body, a person's way they
carry themselves. Every individual is unique in that sense and in every sense,
so that there's, I guess, for want of a better phrase, it’s body language. The
body tells you; your feet, your legs, how you walk, how you stand, how you
relax - they tell you things. And this - I thought that this was a very
beautiful moment. It was a very delicate kind of image of a woman. Definitely a
woman and it was beautiful. It was - I liked it.

GROSS: One of my favorite of your series of photos of jazz musicians is a
backstage photo. It's during a cession break with the Ellington Orchestra...

Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: ...taken in 1954.

Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: And it’s such a beautiful composition of repose and disarray.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: Right. Right.

GROSS: Because it's backstage, you know. In the center of the photograph is a
coat rack, and either side of the coat rack is a jazz musician. They're each
facing in opposite directions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: They're each facing the wall. They're sitting on folding cars, each
reading something. I can't tell whether it's...


GROSS: know, sheet music or the newspaper. And there's, you know,
folding chairs kind of scattered around, and a lot of overhead light.

Mr. DECARAVA: Right. Right.

GROSS: But it's such a...

Mr. DECARAVA: You have good eyes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Thanks. But, such a kind of quiet moment and...

Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. Yeah. I understand. I feel the same way about it. You know,
one of the things that is important to me is that one doesn’t have to be so
literal and so narrow in one's perception of, say music.

Music is a very broad category, if you will, and the musicians to me are very
important. So it really is not so much about their playing, singularly - you
know, photograph them playing something - but it’s about my interest in them as
people and how they...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DECARAVA: they respond to what they do and what they do, you know,
when they relax or when they go somewhere. You know, the idea that musicians
are entertainers and then after they're entertaining, they disappear. They
don’t disappear. They go home. They go to their families or their friends and
they eat like we do. So I'm interested in all of that. And their resting is
certainly one that is very important to me and very beautiful. You know, it's
not just the act itself. It's a kind of a perception of them in their total
environment as much as possible, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Roy DeCarava speaking to Terry Gross in 1996.

More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 1996 interview with photographer Roy
Decarava, who died Tuesday at age 89. He took photographs of Harlem's everyday
residents and famous folk for more than 50 years.

GROSS: One of the things I really love about your photographs is the lighting.
Many of your photographs - I'd venture to say most of the photographs of yours
that I have seen - are really pretty dark with very subtle shades of, you know,
grays and blacks.

Mr. DECARAVA: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And it's clearly a work of art. It's not reality. This looks different
than reality, because of the lighting.

Mr. DECARAVA: That's right. Right

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And I'm wondering what inspired you to go for that very dark atmospheric
lighting that almost reminds me of certain film noir.

Mr. DECARAVA: Uh-huh. Well, it’s first of all; I have to confess that it's what
I like.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: I love the tonal scale and the photographic scale, which means
the simply the range of tone from black to white, it's so… I mean it’s so
unique. There's no other process that can give you this kind of tonality. And
I'm in love with that. And, in addition to which, when I photograph, I accept
the lighting conditions, whatever they are. And I try not to say well, you
can't photograph that because it's too dark or there's not enough light. I
don’t believe in that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: I believe if I can see it, I can photograph it, and I accept the
outcome in the sense that it is black and white and that in itself removes it
from reality. And a lot of the things that I do, for instance, are in the
subway, and the subway is not exactly daylight. And even in people's homes, in
terms of the technology, the film is sensitive, but in order to really show it,
you have to really print at what I call full, and that tends to be on the dark

Let's say if, you know, 50 percent is this and 50 - it tends to be more on the
dark side of 50, and that doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, it gives it a
luminosity that you can't get by printing normally. And what we consider normal
is the information. In other words, one of the things that one gets in a
photograph is information. And I would rather sacrifice the information in
terms of details and things like that...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DECARAVA: ...for a feeling of mood.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Did you resist color when color came about?

Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. Well I didn’t resist it. It just didn’t attract to me. I
was never attracted to it, because I didn’t - at first I didn’t like the
garishness of it. Color, when it was first introduced, was very garish.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DECARAVA: And I did like that. But the main reason I don’t use it is
because it particularizes too much. It becomes - it's very difficult to do a
color photograph without thinking about color first and not what the photograph
is about, because color tends to be arbitrary, especially when you’re dealing
with human beings who dress up brightly when they're feeling sad and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: ...when they're feeling bright, they may have on a black suit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now I know your mother moved to New York from Jamaica when - I believe
she was 17.

Mr. DECARAVA: Right.

GROSS: And she raised you as a single mother. Was she very determined that you
would succeed? Did she push you?

Mr. DECARAVA: No. She protected me...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: ...which is a little different.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DECARAVA: She cared about me and she was very, I mean, she was really very
concerned about me and very attached and caring. And she wanted me to do
things. I mean she loved music so she wanted me to be a musician; and she loved
the violin, so she wanted me to play the violin. But, I remember the turning
point in our relationship, I think, or her perception of me, was when that a
teacher from the public school system came to my house and told my mother that
I was very gifted, and that she should encourage me - because the teacher was
very encouraging. She had bought me a paint set and was very much concerned
with my future. And she took the time to come to my house and talk to my mother
about me, and I thought that was a - and I look back now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: ...and I can hardly see that happening nowadays. But it was a
beautiful thing I think, on the part of the teacher. And my mother took her
seriously, and from then on, she encouraged me to do and be what I wanted to
be, you know, which was to draw and to pursue that avenue.

GROSS: Now, in one of the catalogue essays, for the catalogue of your
photography show, it explains that you were drafted in 1942 and that you had a
terrible experience.

Mr. DECARAVA: Forty-three.

GROSS: Forty-three, okay. But it says you had a really bad experience in the
military and that you were in a psychiatric ward for about a month and ended up
with a medical discharge. What happened? Did you have a nervous breakdown?

Mr. DECARAVA: I guess you’d call it that, yeah. And it was the conditions of –
I hate to even think about it. It was just very uncomfortable and very mean and
destructive, not only to me, but to so many black soldiers. Because at that
time there were two Armies, you know. One was black and one was white. And the
only reason for the separation is to treat black people different from white
people. And that’s what happened in the Army, and in the Army, there is no such
thing as democracy. And you had to do what you were told.

And they just try to break you down and make you a soldier, you know, which was
something that went against what I was. So I had a difficult time, but I’m glad
to be out of it and I no longer have nightmares.

GROSS: How did being a soldier go against who you were?

Mr. DECARAVA: Well, because there was no – well, of course, it was you had to
do things. You were forced to do things that you had really no interest in. And
I didn’t like the idea of killing people. I didn’t like the idea of being
killed. I didn’t like the whole destructive thing that the Army is made for.
It’s made - I don’t know – you can define it as protection. You can define it
as this and that and the other, but the end result is about killing and not to
be killed, and that was to – that to me is not a very civilized position to be

GROSS: So, what was your month in the psychiatric ward like?

Mr. DECARAVA: Well, it was where I learned about democracy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What do you mean?

Mr. DECARAVA: I mean it was the only place in the whole United States Army
where they – where we weren’t segregated. So, we weren’t really the crazy ones.


Mr. DECARAVA: It was the people outside who were crazy.

GROSS: That’s interesting. So, did it change your sense of yourself when you
got out of the Army? Did you see yourself differently than you did before you
got in?

Mr. DECARAVA: Yeah. I valued myself more.

GROSS: That’s interesting, because you’d think that kind of experience would
kind of break you down and that you’d lose self esteem.

Mr. DECARAVA: Well, if I stayed in there long enough, I probably would have.
And that’s what I was fighting against.

GROSS: So, tell me about just coming out and feeling like you valued yourself

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: Well, I just looked at the sky and I looked at the ground and I
said, hallelujah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: It was - I was free to go and do as I please and to pursue my
life in a way that was constructive. You know, I didn’t have to learn how to
shoot and how to do this and do that. And I felt that I could live. No one told
me when to get up. No one was overtly cruel to me and mean and authoritarian.
No, it was wonderful to be free, to get up in the morning and be responsible
for yourself.

GROSS: What kind of subject matter would you say interests you most now in your

Mr. DECARAVA: I think what it’s about is my feelings.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DECARAVA: I mean, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s what I look at and
it’s how I feel about things that really is what I’m dealing with - not so much
with the subject as how I feel about the subject. And the subject can be
anything, depending how I feel at that moment, so that really it’s about my
perceptions that I’m really trying to express. And my perceptions are the same
perceptions that human – other human beings feel. So, therefore, I have a
kinship for that.

GROSS: Roy DeCarava, I want to thank you very much, and congratulations on your

Mr. DECARAVA: Thank you. And I’m – I hope that you liked it and I hope that
people liked it. And I was glad that I was invited to talk about it. Thank you.

BIANCULLI: Roy DeCarava, speaking to Terry Gross in 1996, about his
retrospective which started at the Museum of Modern Art. The famous Harlem
photographer died Tuesday, at age 89. To see a gallery of his work, including
his backstage photograph of Duke Ellington Orchestra, visit
Coming up: a review of the new Michael Jackson movie.

This is FRESH AIR.
Fresh Air
12:00-13:00 PM
‘This Is It’ Offers Rare Peek At The King of Pop

(Soundbite of movie, “This is It”)

Mr. MICHAEL JACKSON (Singer): Okay, this is the harmony. The vocal harmonies on
the chorus is - of “Beat It.” I’ll do the verses, then I’ll do the choruses.
One, two, three, four.

(Soundbite of song, “Beat It”)

Mr. JACKSON: (Vocalizing)

Unidentified Group #1: Beat it.

Unidentified Group #2: Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Vocalizing)

Unidentified Group #1: Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Vocalizing)

Unidentified Group #1: Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) But you’re driving me mad. So beat it.

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) Beat it.

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing) Beat it.

Mr. JACKSON: (Singing) No one wants to be defeated. Showing how funky, showing


When Michael Jackson died on June 25th, he was in the midst of rehearsals for a
series of 50 comeback concerts in London’s O2 arena under the title, “This is
It.” Now instead, there is a film called “This is It,” which documents
Jackson’s last weeks of rehearsal at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The
director of both the concert and the film, Kenny Ortega, first gained fame as
the choreographer of “Dirty Dancing,” and recently directed Disney’s “High
School Musical” movies. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Few documentaries have been creepier in prospect than “This is
It,” the sadly apt title for a quick assembly of Michael Jackson’s final
rehearsal footage, shot while he was preparing for a run of 50 comeback
concerts in London. Anonymous sources after Jackson’s death spoke of Michael’s
druggy frailty, the loss of his voice, his grief at being unable, at age 50, to
fill his own shoes, the shoes of the 23-year-old King of Pop. So I braced
myself to watch Sony and a bunch of Jackson-estate greed-heads squeeze the last
dollar out of a moonwalking skeleton. Well, that skeleton moonwalks pretty well
and dances better than almost anyone who’s ever lived. And the movie is vivid
and illuminating and sometimes - more often than you’d think possible -
inspiring. Watching these numbers, superbly choreographed and designed and
close to finished, you see that the London concert series wasn’t an inherently
doomed enterprise.

Touch and go, certainly - Jackson was striving for the impossible: to go
onstage one last time and be as he had been. “This Is It” gives you no context
and offers no posthumous commentary on the trajectory of Jackson’s life. It’s
just process — would probably have ended up as a DVD supplement to a concert
film. The huge and splashy show was to feature his big hits — from “ABC”
through “Billy Jean” and “Black and White,” with elaborate multimedia
interpolations. Among them, updates of the incomparable “Thriller” and “Smooth
Criminal” videos. Jackson did nothing small.

The challenge for the film’s director, Kenny Ortega, who was also directing the
stage show, was to remind us why Jackson was the King of Pop, but also leaving
in signs of vulnerability. If the film had been edited to make Jackson seem too
on top of his game, our morbid curiosity about his imminent demise would go
unsatisfied. If he brought out too much of Jackson’s instability, the charge of
exploitation would be even harder to fight. Ortega gets the balance right.

Jackson’s legs are pool-cue thin, so that every time he lands, you fear a
crack. Yet when Ortega splits the screen into run throughs on two or three
different days, Michael’s dancing is awesomely on point. A choreographer
explains to auditioning dancers that it’s not just athleticism that’s required.
If you don’t have that goo, she says, that ooze coming out of you, you’re not
going to get the job - which sounds alarming, but makes sense. The dancing is
snap and ooze, violent spasm and simmer.

And Jackson’s not just keeping up with the young troop. He’s credibly leading
them. Before the final round of auditions, Ortega tells prospects that dancers
in a Michael Jackson show are an extension of Michael Jackson, and they do seem
projections of his will. He dictates every beat to his dancers, musicians and

(Soundbite of movie, “This is It”)

Mr. JACKSON: I gotta cue that. I gotta cue that. That should trigger on its

Unidentified Man: Guys, that should be a special on our girl.

Mr. JACKSON: That can’t trigger on its own.

(Soundbite of song, “The Way You Make Me Feel”)

EDELSTEIN: Jackson emerges here as a control freak, but one who uses the word
love as a mantra, perhaps because his dad was reportedly so harsh. It’s not
right, but that’s okay, he says, then adds, it’s all for love. Then adds, just
get it there. His singing voice had a long way to get there, and he calls out
from the stage that he’s saving it, conserving his throat. In some numbers, his
vocals have clearly been sweetened after the fact, but Ortega leaves in enough
wobbly notes to let you know that even the oohs and yips were an effort.

One of the techies gushes that Jackson always has to push the boundaries in his
work, which must have been especially terrifying to a performer whose
boundaries had already been pushed as far as any humans can go. No, he wasn’t
fully up to it, and that white face and nose whittled down to cartilage is
spooky to behold. But “This is It” is still worth treasuring. Like all great
artists, outside their scandals and behind their mythical facades, Jackson was
working, hitting his marks, working, trying to hit the notes, always working.
His discipline and drive outlasted his body, but it’s captured here onscreen

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can
download Podcasts of our show at, and you can follow us on

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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