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The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes – review

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This singular hybrid of photography and poetry captures 50s Harlem on the brink of change

The story goes that Langston Hughes met Roy DeCarava by accident on a street corner in uptown Manhattan in 1954 and was so taken by his photographs of everyday life in Harlem that he took them straight to his publishers. Simon & Schuster agreed to go ahead only if Hughes, who by then had published several novels, plays and poems, provided an accompanying text. The result, which first appeared the following year, was a hybrid book that is now recognised as a pioneering exercise in merging image and text as well as a revealing glimpse into the everyday lives of Harlem’s black community.

Now reissued by David Zwirner Books, which recently took creative charge of the DeCarava estate, The Sweet Flypaper of Lifecontinues to cast a singular spell. Revealingly, DeCarava saw himself not as a documentarian, but as a modernist who valued his quest for “creative expression” over any desire to make “a sociological statement”. His approach was quietly subversive in its upending of traditional – and usually reductive – portrayals of black Americans in the mainstream media, where, as he noted, they were often presented “either in a superficial or a caricatured way or as a problem”.

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