THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Dawoud Bey, A Girl in the Deli Doorway, Brooklyn, NY, 1988. Photo: Museum of Contemporary Photography.
With shows currently on view at the Art Institute of Chicago and Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art and with upcoming exhibitions scheduled for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art next fall and the Whitney Museum in 2020, photographer Dawoud Bey is having an extended starry moment. To mark these top-flight openings, the University of Texas Press has issued a sumptuous 400-plus page photo retrospective of Bey’s 40-year career.
Seeing Deeply reflects Bey’s use of the camera to create a portrait capturing what Bey terms the “interior life” of a person. The subjects of his work tend to be either African-Americans or young people. These demographics are often overlooked or underestimated. The attention of Bey’s photographic eye brings out a unique facial expression or gesture in his subjects. Throughout Seeing Deeply, readers can follow along with Bey as he tirelessly works with the medium to explore strategies for expressing an increasingly conceptual approach to photography.
Bey is a native New Yorker, born in Queens in 1953. The 1969 exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has been noted several times as the first moment for Bey’s inspiration to make photographs.
Though he navigated from Queens to the Met in order to picket the exhibition, once he was there, the sixteen-year-old Bey saw ordinary people, like those in his own neighborhood, memorialized among relics and other precious objects. In a 2015 TED Talk, he remarked that at that moment, he was given an idea of how to use the camera he had received from his godmother. Fast forward to 1975: Bey heads to Harlem with a small 35mm camera to document the neighborhood his parents had lived in before moving.
Bey studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York and eventually received his MFA in photography from Yale School of Art. He has garnered numerous accolades, including a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 2017. Bey’s artistic influence is doubled as an educator. He has taught many other amazing photographers, including fellow MacArthur grant recipient, Carrie Mae Weems. He is currently a professor of photography at Columbia College Chicago.
Seeing Deeply is organized chronologically in nine sections, beginning with 35mm street photographs from his first project, “Harlem, U.S.A.,” and other “small camera works” shot in various locations, including Puerto Rico, Mexico, and New York City. The work shows the early development of Bey’s unique style of portraiture. These photographs are dynamic and exciting. Some recall the influence of the field’s greats, like Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Roy DeCarava. The best photographs go deeper than the traditional street photograph. The apparent connection Bey has with the subjects shows in their relaxed poses.
In the late ‘80s, Bey began working with Polaroid. At this time, artists could submit a proposal to the Polaroid Corporation to receive free film in exchange for artwork to be added to their vast collection. Polaroid Type 55 film is special because it creates a positive as well as a negative that can be fixed and used to create prints. The resultant photograph has an interesting ghostliness to it because the positive is a unique object and thus the light is captured directly from the subject onto its surface. In his “Type 55 Project,” Bey gave the positives to the subjects of the portraits and retained the negative to be reproduced.
Bey’s use of light is expert, but it is his use of the frame that truly sets his work apart. The edges of each image in the Type 55 project are carefully considered. There is a light edge around the frame created when the Polaroid is pulled apart. This edge adds a uniform frame within the frame that gently embraces the figures. These street portraits feel like captured moments between two people.
The Type 55 series of black and white street photos gives way to large 20x24 inch studio portraits. The studio portraits activate the frame in a vastly different way. The life-size scale of the subjects is made through the piecing together of multiple 20x24 inch frames. The subtle changes give life to the subjects as we are afforded a close look at two moments at the same time. They are reminiscent of cubist paintings.
The top edges of the frames are smeared with the residue of the chemical process. This gives the photographs a painting-like feel. In this project, the material of the photograph is of equal importance to the work as the models in them. It shows a shift Bey has taken with his practice towards a more conceptual approach.
“The Birmingham Project” is evidence of Bey’s most conceptual thinking. Reflecting on the tragic bombing of a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, this project memorializes the victims by granting them an extension of life through photography. The photographic element of the project consists of a series of diptychs. There is a young model and an older model both sitting in church. The young model represents a victim of the violent act, at the age when the atrocity occurred. The older model represents the same victim at the age they would have been had their life not been taken.
The casting is quite interesting, as both models, selected from the black community in Birmingham, are believable as versions of the same person. Bey employs his ability to create a striking image of a person who cannot sit for this portrait and opens up the documentary aspect of photography in a subtle but powerful way.
Bey’s photographic career began with street portraits in Harlem. In the recent project “Harlem Redux,” Bey revisits the New York City neighborhood and documents its change since the 1970s. In some ways, the style seems a departure from Bey’s portrait-making. The images do not engage with people in the frame. The frame is instead activated in clever ways to pick out aspects of the city in flux. Green construction walls obscure whole blocks. The boarded-up windows of the historic Lenox Lounge, which major figures of the Harlem Renaissance frequented, give an eerie feeling.
Daywoud Bey, Three Men and the Lenox Lounge, Harlem, NY, 2014. Photo: Stephen Daiter Gallery.
Throughout the images it is made clear that the body and demographics of Harlem have changed drastically. The lack of human engagement, in contrast to the previous collections of work, reflects a degree of cynicism towards the changes happening in this historic community.
Seeing Deeply is the quintessential Dawoud Bey collection. Informative and packed with beautiful reproductions of his best works, it comes at a pinnacle in the career of this influential photographer.
Rebecca Memoli is a Chicago-based photographer and curator. She received her BFA from Pratt Institute and her MFA in Photography from Columbia College. Her work has been featured in several national and international group shows. Her latest curatorial project is "The Feeling is Mutual."
Dawoud Bey, A Young Woman Waiting for the Bus, Syracuse, NY, 1985. Photo: Art Institute of Chicago.
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