"For Those Who Have Eyes to Hear"

From Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw:

why the present is a crutch of


bottles drowning a derelict past

in surrealistic

confusions that ride the future on

platinum hair

and plywood boxes with cast iron wheels


impersonal and impervious to everything

hot and cold

knowing a special ignorance


wealth can buy and arrogance sustain


petrified abstractions and ambivalent


to human equations that temporize and


while money makes money iron


plaster crumbles and chromium

will peel

(Note: once again, sorry for the poor reproduction quality. I still don’t have a suitable book-photographing workflow worked out.)

Roy DeCarava’s The Sound I Saw was composed in the 60’s, but not published until 2001. It consists of photographs and verse on a jazz theme. DeCarava writes, “Everything a jazzman feels, sees, hears, everything he was and is becomes the source and object of his music. It is a music purchased with dues of hardship, suffering and pain, optimism and love.” His book has this aspect about it. It is an inclusive, intimate, and comprehensive exploration of life lived in the context of the time and place and society in which it was made.

It is a kind of phenomenological document on race and class in America. By “phenomenological document,” I mean it is a record of an experience. There must be a better way to put this, but so far I cannot think of one. The value of the photographs in The Sound I Saw is not in objective disclosure of facts, but it is also not in internal exploration, or in the artistic arrangement of documentary “style” photographs to serve an interior vision. These are photographs that, more than any others I can think of, approximate a shared experience of the human gaze.

The eye is not an isolated organ, and it is not a technical instrument. My eye gives me a view that is informed by my knowledge, my experience, my personality, my feelings. The typical Western mindset is to perceive this subjective aspect of experience, which is inextricable even at the base level of sensorium, as a weakness, or at least a potential vulnerability. This assumption is always problematic, but it is an absolute land mine when it comes to understanding issues like race and class, or any other area where society is split up along divisions of power which are also divisions of perceptibility.

So, for those who do not have their own direct experience of the kinds of scene DeCarava is photographing, it is important to approach these photographs in the correct way: not just as historical documents (although many of them are), and not just as artistic works (although all of them are), but also for their truth-disclosing function as regards the subjective experience of race and class, which is not to be confused with opinion or other epistemologically defused modes of communication. There is testimony here, and the reader should be reading for it.

So, that being said, what’s the book actually like? It consists of black and white photographs interspersed with verse. The verse is a single continuous poem (and possibly a continuous sentence) about 2,000 words in length, and it appears to the viewer in chunks and fragments. No fragment stands on its own. Each extends from the last and points to the next, while also relating to the photographs it frames, and so binding the whole book together.

Similarly, the photographs are tied one to the next by composition or content — the angles of a fire escape to the angles of a quartet’s instruments, one pair of clasped hands to another, gazes intersecting across the book’s gutter, gestures, reflections, patterns of light and dark. The images and the text keep time with each other, and together flow through the stage, the street, the hallway, the home, and spiral back and on again.

DeCarava’s arsenal of technique is diverse — style, angle of view, perspective, content — all are flexible and changeable. Soft focus and motion blur are used alongside crisp, perfect detail, each advancing a different visual strategy, each serving the same overall narrative. Strongly stylized and allusive images and utterly straight documentary views support each other seamlessly. The result is organic, contiguous, encompassing work and play, family life and the public space, high and low art, and above all, music and the landscape of race and class.

The Sound I Saw is the best example I have encountered of a photographic sequence. Most sequences fail at either establishing solid photo-to-photo connections, or at producing a satisfying unified work in the sequence as a whole. And text, when provided, usually either serves to cover some gap in the photos’ ability to depict and explain, or else establishes a tenuous bridge between the photographs and some theoretical justification for the sequence — which is more often than not absurd, patronizing, or pandering. The Sound I Saw avoids all these traps.

Part of the reason it is able to do so is that, as I mentioned, it presents to the viewer a record of experience. When looking at the photos that show work, and reading the text that describes work, one feels work — its cost in fatigue, the weight of its necessity, its exertion, its sweat. This experience of work is contiguous across manual labor and the work of musicians performing on stage. DeCarava pays the same kind and degree of attention to the laborer’s tool and the musician’s instrument. And sweat — in The Sound I Saw, sweat takes on a spiritual or religious dimension, almost like a communion:

aching fingers

to rest and drop the two shovels

every member

must use back to back

in time

and in his place of something

less than

good enough to breathe bittersweet


and the drag gigs that never end

(DeCarava’s depictions of play are equally profound, but I think less singular. Many photographers have done an excellent job of recording children at play, adults caught up in dance, etc. It is less common to see work presented in a way that cuts past our tendency to objectify and to distance ourselves from our experiences of strain and pain.)

Corollary to work is an awareness of the class and racial context in which work takes place, which DeCarava conveys in images of subtle severity. The hand of a man glimpsed in the backseat of a car is minimal, indeed not far from the very edge of recognizability, but elegant and eloquent in the reality it expresses, of the distance between the rich and the rest of us. Equally eloquent are the pale faces of well-dressed men who avoid the camera’s gaze — and the photographer’s gaze, and all that implies.

These things are part of what builds the experience of race into the photographs themselves, and invites the viewer to share in the seeing and the being seen of being a black man in the 60’s. Which is very different from just providing a record of a race-related event or personage, but is no less a true document.

DeCarava’s depictions of the places in which people live and work are just as elegantly and profoundly made. It is difficult to strike a balance between clearly and directly portraying the ruinous situations in which poor people often live and respecting the reality and specificity and dignity of the lives they live. DeCarava does this better than pretty much anyone else. (cf. The Ruinpornomicon)

He also finds the balance between an honest record of the alienation, loathing, and oppression that come with a racist society, and the desire for a more equitable future (“…the hope / light hands in trains will be / hands / dark faces on buses just / faces…”) and also images of people in the present who come together across the color line. In accounting for race — especially race in the 60’s, although unfortunately it is not so different today — it is very easy to wind up with a partial narrative — one defined by anger and bitterness, or by hope. It is harder to simultaneously affirm the reality of both, which is what DeCarava does.

The Sound I Saw is a beautiful and moving and important book. It is a book that I think everyone in America should be expected to read. Certainly it is a book that should be much more prominent than it is within the discourse of documentary and street photography. I find it especially bothersome that we give so much attention to The Americans (a book that is, by comparison, a travelogue: a skimming of the surface of American life) when we could be talking about this instead.

It may not be in print (grr), but you may be able to find it on the remainder table of your local bookstore (grr), and you can certainly find it used online. I cannot recommend strongly enough that you do so.

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