Jesse’s Book Review – The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava

Bearing the lord’s message “Come Home” she responded that she wasn’t ready, adding “I might be a little sick, but as yet I ain’t no ways tired.” And thus begins Langston Hughes story set on the streets of Harlem in the early 50s…that is The Sweet Flypaper of Life. With the promise of an integrated heaven she wanted to see if the US would actually enact it on earth in this very country and it is Roy DeCarava’s photograph of a young Harlem girl looking back at the camera, that is us, that we are confronted with. Her eyebrows slightly raised upon expectation that is neither cynical or optimistic for this is a face that knows…it is what it is. And so begins this photo book collaboration for the then up and coming photographer in Roy DeCarava and perhaps the most leading figure of the Harlem Renaissance some 30 years later in his twilight, Langston Hughes. The two met by chance on an uptown NY street corner and after receiving some of DeCarava’s silver gelatin prints, Hughes convinced his own publisher to bring attention to this work. The publisher in turn requested Hughes write an accompanying text and what emerged is the book here.

The woman not yet ready to die we find is a grandmother of ten taking in her eldest, Rodney, who has fallen by the wayside. This is Harlem in the 50s the time of Bebop who’s rhythmic gymnastics over chord arrangements pioneered by Diz and Bird reflected the tempo of life on the streets that the woman is worried will take her grandson under. Grainy underexposed images of these juke joints often blurred not only due to the limited light, but the limitations of the medium at the time that had rapidly developed to the demands of the war… illustrate this narrative over the next few pages. This music was contrary to the blues that the woman herself grew up with in the south and is naturally put off by it. The blues although heralded as the devil’s music in her time, shares in common the similar call-and-response structure of the southern black church that metaphors the rich texture of Hughes poetic lyricism in response to the call of DeCarava’s photographs. The resulting expression is the true stature of a people who were not seen as worthy subjects of art.

It is the jazz of Harlem and its high life of Cadillacs representing vice that populate the next few pages of photographs. As there is Chick, Rodney’s cousin, who is the exact opposite leading a clean life that the woman, her name by now I should mention is Sister Mary…so Mary, who wonders why Rodney lags behind as if born under as bad sign. The images that ensue tell a story of the childhood of two different boys in the same streets who grew up so differently. One heavily isolated, the photographs are thus from a distance, less intimate but cropped to show the details of loneliness being left to nature. While the other is nurtured with more intimate interior shots of a child with his mother and father. It is the isolated one Mary toils for in going to work on integrated subways wondering why Rodney can’t have access to integrated schools. She is tired. We are introduced to the rest of her family through different portraits. Like the rhythms of life, there is no resolution in Sister Mary’s story, she just continues to live, “Here I am” is the caption of the book’s last is of her in her Sunday best. Her presence is a blessing and her essence is our lesson.

What creativity from the medium! At a Flotsam Books sale in Tokyo, I found a Bruno Munari (the Italian designer) photo book that told separate stories where at the end he reveals that they all were just from a single image of a commercial travel brochure. The point of which was to reinforce how an image can be drastically altered thru its context. That is a photographer can take a photograph, but not control it meaning. Here Hughes took over a 100 images from a photographer and provided us with words that enriched the context demonstrating the more successful results of this concept. Yet one doesn’t have to read the text and can just look at the images as it is arbitrary.

Reproduced to the exact specifications of the 1955 original, this 2018 edition is quite economic while remaining faithful to the original. I was shocked by the size, as it smaller than most paperback novels, yet as a photo book it engrosses you like one. You get closer and the images regardless of size demand that intimacy. But it is again a success because it is organic and follows the images. I previously reviewed the photo book Dazai by Daido Moriyama who posthumously set photos to a Dazai Osamu short story that I loved, but could also feel the disconnect as it was a man responding where there was no call. Really the opposite in photographs being subservient to text, but it was his reverence of Dazai that made it work. But how suitable for the poet Hughes to improvise, like Charlie Parker over chords, over photographs.

The manner is not only special in the above regard but culturally suitable. I have reviewed a few of Gordon Parks books over the decade for JCH and felt this was not only a suitable, but chronologically appropriate. This new edition can be had rather easily through most major book outlets for under 30 USD.

Jesse Freeman is a friend, photographer and movie buff. He has a great knowledge of photography books and classic cinema. He can also be relied upon for decent music recommendations.
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