Seeds of those questions about the very presence of Black people in this country — and the value of their lives — were sown in the era depicted in “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” The seeds have grown, stubbornly and persistently ever since, inextricably linking this country’s tortured history with race to its present. They gather in the more than 70 photographs in this retrospective. “An American Project” asks viewers to consider this as they look at the faces of Black men, women and children who, from Harlem to Birmingham, posed for Bey over the past 40 years. Bey’s photographs don’t argue for the humanity of Black people, as much as declare it. The exhibit is a witness to faith.
“For much of my career I’ve made work that uses the portrait as the vehicle for speaking about Black humanity, to give a sense of the expansive humanity that Black people embody, and to do that by making work that brings a rich sense of interiority to the description of Black people,” Bey, 66, said in an email interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Black people are often described in ways that are sociological but not always in a conversation that connects them to the wellspring of humanity. So, I have made work that embraces and visualizes that humanity and then amplifies it.”
Credit: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
Credit: Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
“A Political Act”
To create that kind of work, he had to be awakened to its presence. He grew up middle class in Queens, New York, with parents who met as young people attending a church in Harlem. Bey has long told the story of how he was changed by seeing “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Captial of Black America, 1900-1968,” a photography exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969. Black artists protested the exhibition for not including enough Black creators. But it was the black and white photos in the show of Black people going about their lives in his parents’ home community that moved the teenaged Bey.
Just six years later, when he was 21, he began taking his own pictures around Harlem. The series became “Harlem USA,” a well-received solo show at the Studio Museum of Harlem in 1969.
“The work really begins from a place of biography,” said Elisabeth Sherman, assistant curator of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which along with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, created the retrospective last year. “'Harlem USA' comes from a yearning to understand his family’s biological origins, but also as the generator of all the culture that inspired him.”
What’s so striking about the photos is that they are knowing. And loving. A young boy who is sporting aviator sunglasses poses in front of a movie theater box office. He is summoning all the pre-teen cool he can muster, leaning nonchalantly, against a barricade. In another portrait, an older man in a bowler hat and a crisp bowtie looks directly at the camera with the slightest of smiles. His hands bear the lines of a life of hard work.
Bey recognizes their rich interior lives. In turn, those lives gave Harlem its richness.
“Dawoud is one of the most important portraitists of his generation,” said Corey Keller, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “He is emphasizing the power of representation and the importance it holds. And really, the act of being seen is a political act."
Keller had followed Bey’s work for decades. First with Harlem USA. Next, the “Street Portraits” series taken in Brooklyn in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for which Bey made Polaroids of his subjects in more stylized photos, such as an elder Black woman sporting a show-stopping black and white church hat. In another, a young couple embraces in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. The expression on their faces almost dares a challenge their love, even if that love lasts no longer than the summer’s hit song.
That respect for the everydayness and the grandeur in Black life is something Keller recognized more than 20 years later when she saw photos Bey was posting on Instagram of other projects he’d done in the years since “Street Portraits.” There was “Class Pictures,” about the interior lives of high school students around the country, told in portraits in the late 1990s and early 2000s; the “Birmingham Project,” which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the murder of four little girls in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963; “Harlem, Redux,” from 2014 to 2017, which was a meditation on the gentrification of Harlem and the erasure of the Black community there Bey once knew.
His book, “Seeing Deeply,” which contained many of those photos was published by the University of Texas Press in 2018 and Bey had long been a professor at Columbia College in Chicago. But there was no exhibition tied to the book so, Keller said, she began conversations with him about creating a retrospective. It would represent not only the images but the ways he captured them: 35mm on the street; in studio with a giant, 20 x 24, 237-pound Polaroid camera; with a tripod.
“Dawoud is very deliberate in the choices he makes, from the type of camera to the way he prints, those are essential to understanding the work,” Keller said. “In the 1980s, he wanted to be visible to the people he was photographing. Then he moved to a camera on a tripod where you’re covered. With the Polaroids, he wanted to bring in the colors of Rembrandt. It’s about the tone he wants to set for the encounter between the photographer and the subject.”
Sarah Kennel, curator of photography at the High Museum, said the High’s relationship with Bey began in 1996 as the Olympics approached. He was one of three artists chosen for its inaugural Picturing the South project that year. Since then the High has acquired about 55 of Bey’s works, making the museum one of the top two or three collectors of his work nationally.
“His photographs represent a larger struggle for representation,” Kennel said. “There are so many images out there of violence and trauma, that it’s important to show the richness of Black lives. So much of his work is an affirmative experience and we hope a healing experience.”
It might follow then, that given his work as a portraitist and his eye toward history, Bey might consider portraits of those who marched in the streets this summer during protests of police violence against unarmed Black people. When posed the question, Bey, who received a MacArthur genius award in 2017, was clear: he is not a photojournalist.
“I don’t work that way,” he wrote. “And the killing of George Floyd is directly related to the ongoing history of the violent abuse of Black bodies that began with slavery. So, I don’t feel like I need to make work that points to that directly in this moment. I’m making work about the history that underpins this moment, and that has always underpinned the history of sustained violence against Black people, including George Floyd. So, I am doing that work, but in my own way.”
And so, the viewer leans into another portrait from “Night Coming Tenderly”: the choppy silver-black waters of Lake Erie. On the other side of that great lake, unseen, is Canada. It promised lasting freedom to an enslaved person after the U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, mandating those who’d made it to the Northern states be captured and returned South.
What must it have been to stand on those shores and wonder how to cross. How much faith was needed to take one more chance at freedom?
Dawoud Bey: An American Project
On view through March 14, 2021, at the High Museum of Art. high.org