New York Photobooks

About photobooks – old and new.

Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes – The Sweet Flypaper of Life



Title: The Sweet Flypaper of Life

Authors: Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes

Published by Simon and Schuster, New York, 1955

8vo: dark boards with a photographically illustrated dust jacket. 98 pages with 141 black and white gravure plates,

“The Sweet Flypaper of Life” is the result of collaboration between the photographer Roy Decarava and the writer Langston Hughes, a prominent figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement. Originally, Decarava undertook a photographic research project in Harlem, after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952. Once finished, Decarava could not find a publisher for his photos, until he showed them to Langston Hughes, who suggested writing a text to accompany the photos.

Decarava’s photographic expression is to a certain extent emblematic of a new street photography approach which started after WWII. The main concern was to move beyond documenting objective reality to include photographers’ creativity and intuition. As  Decarava has said himself “It’s not the subject that interests me as much as my perception of the subject.” His photographs are in many cases poetic statements about life in Harlem, imbued in mysticism and transcending reality. They often capture contemplative characters and enigmatic details of ordinary life, letting the reader imagine and guess, rather than providing all the clues.

Hughes explored marvelously this enigmatic atmosphere in Decarava’s images with a fictional narrative revolving around the life of Sister Mary Bradley, a grandmother who embraces life without complaints, full of passion and wisdom. In the text she narrates her own story, offering many insights about life in Harlem. Ultimately, Sister Bradley’s family story, full of joys and difficulties, is more than a Harlem story. It is a story about life, tenderly chronicled by Decarava in his photos.

This photobook is a concrete example of how the collaboration between a photographer and a writer can be much more than the sum of the parts. The participation of Hughes helped to elevate Decarava’s photographic expression to a more creative and magical perspective on reality, breaking with the traditional social documentary genre. As Decarava had written in his application for the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1952, “I do not want a documentary or sociological statement,” but rather a creative expression, the kind of penetrating insight and understanding that only an insider can produce.

“The Sweet Flypaper of Life” also stands out by a positive perspective about Harlem. As Hughes explains “We have had so many books about how bad life is, maybe it is time to have one about how good it is.” This positive feeling is strongly conveyed by Sister Bradley’s perspective on life. But the photos themselves also contrast with the usual dramatic tone seen in many social documentary photos about Harlem. They transmit a sense of wellbeing and wisdom, without disguising signs of poverty.

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March 2016

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