I’m thrilled to find one of my favorite street photographs online, Roy DeCarava’s 1950 Lingerie. I’d previously seen it only at the Beinecke Library in New Haven, where it was featured in a 2013 exhibition, The Power of Pictures. The Renaissance Press is hosting twelve of his photos, Lingerie included. DeCarava won a Guggenheim in 1952 for his depictions of life in Harlem.
I love this for how easy it is to overlook what’s going on here. Four boys, hanging out on the street. Standing on a windowsill, which my kid would do and I would yell at him. After school, or after church maybe, passing some lackadaisical time. But then you read the sign, and suddenly the boys’ interest in those windows takes on a whole new meaning. I also love the way an everyday photograph, nearly sixty-five years later, tells us how much our context has changed. How often do boys hang out in ties, suspenders, and button-downs? How often do they climb the outsides of buildings in dress shoes (well, perhaps more often than they ought)? Fire escapes down the front of buildings, one simple board for advertising, the rust you can practically feel on the bars – all different from life now. And then there’s the one final thing, which, to me, raises the photo from warm-hearted fondness for semi-universal boyhood to a window on one of the most fraught questions in American history – our tangled race relations. It looks to me as though the boy on the ground (with a stick? a rope?) was black and the ones up in the air white. He’s dressed differently, in striped short sleeves and minus the ties. Were they playing together? Anything but? Not friends, but drawn by the common goal of the lingerie? I can imagine heartwarming stories and chilling stories, rather like our history.