Five treatment as art and the significance of

Five men and The Avant-garde: art
formed out of oppression


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’ (
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 Marcel Duchamp 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.

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‘Five Men’ was made in 1964, a year wherein
many pivotal factors surrounding and determining the US’ history and future,
respectively, were determined. 1964 saw 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 were killed and fourteen others were
injured during church services (CNN Library, n.d.). A memorial service for the
victims of the bombing was held in in Harlem, 1964. Roy DeCarava, aware of what
was being memorialised, 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’.

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 new, individual, and signature aesthetic;
velvety greys seamlessly through sullen blacks in a way that can only be produced
by 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, and ‘Five Men’, it is not uncommon knowledge that ‘race and class
are intertwined in America’ (Savali, 2016). Thus, where DeCarava can be seen
addressing the pain of 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 (ibid, 2016:126). Picasso then
collaging the newsprints 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’ has an undeniably collagesque
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. 1912 to 1914
saw significant advances in the Avant-garde with Tatlin and Duchamp commanding
‘new forms of object making… exploring industrial materials and commercial
products’ (Foster et al., 2016:137) in response to unsightly aspects of
society. For Duchamp, and to a lesser degree Tatlin, the reaction is to the
advancement of industrialisation and commodification – although Tatlin’s first constructions
and Duchamps premades predate the Russian revolution and commodity culture
respectively. While it may seem contrived, then, to draw comparison to ‘Five
Men’ a photo deeply embedded in the era against which it rebelled, Tatlin’s and
Duchamps creations ‘seemed to anticipate such worldly transformations’ as the
revolution and commodity culture (Ibid, 2016:137). DeCarava, Duchamp, and
Tatlin are all responding to bourgeois art. DeCarava himself, having trained as
a painter, was first attracted to photography upon realising “a black painter…
had to join the white world or not function – had to accept the values of white
culture” (DeCarava, quoted in Chakravorty, 2016), white culture being intrinsically
linked to bourgeois culture, especially in a segregated nation. Since, becoming
regarded as founder of an artistic mode and parting with the time (Chakravorty,
2016), not unlike Duchamp and Tatlin. Their works were not noticed as art; not matching the notion of art in
mainstream culture. In his refusal to conform with white culture, DeCarava,
too, was able to expose boundaries in art, his work not being realised as art;
rejected from mainstream culture for being “black”.

The key presence in ‘Five Men’ and the works
mentioned of Picasso, Tatlin, and Duchamp is the directness of art. The
importance of perception of subject over subject itself. What is important in
‘Five Men’ is both DeCarava’s perception and the viewer’s perception of the
artwork as an artwork responding to and rejecting oppression, not as a
photograph of five men – an everyday encounter for DeCarava. Much in the same
way as Duchamp did not perceive a urinal as merely an everyday encounter, but a
means of combatting the oppression of industrialisation and commodification; a
‘Fountain’ of symbolism against mainstream culture. ‘Profound social change
comes slowly over decades’ (Brown,
quoted in Mecklenburg and Powell, 2012) and artworks of the likes of ‘Five Men’
are vital pieces of history in studying the progression of social change. With
‘Five Men’, DeCarava has left a definitive mark on American history,
photography, and art – the last two of which now more one with each other as a
direct result of DeCarava and his work.