Born in San Francisco, David Alan Harvey was raised in Virginia. He discovered photography at the age of 11. Harvey purchased a used Leica with savings from his newspaper route and began photographing his family and neighbourhood in 1956.

When he was 20 he lived with and documented the lives of a black family living in Norfolk, Virginia, and the resulting book, Tell It Like It Is, was published in 1966. He was named Magazine Photographer of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association in 1978.