Installation view of “An American Project,” 2022, at Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Courtesy of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Dawoud Bey is known for photographs that narrate Black culture’s impact on the United States. Bey’s precise eye has led to incredibly vivid black-and-white and color photographs spanning portraiture and, more recently, landscape and narratives.
In portraits like A Girl with a Knife Nosepin, Brooklyn, NY (1990), we see an extreme close-up of a young girl’s face that leads her eyes to meet ours in an intimate encounter. The photograph is a great example of Bey’s tender and unmatched technical approach to photographing Black subjects and culture that creates a conversation between not just the subject and the photographer, but also between the subject and the viewer.
Bey is currently the subject of a retrospective, “An American Project,” which concludes its journey at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, on May 30th, following stops at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition examines Bey’s exceptionally innovative and ethical interventions in photography across a 45-year period (1975–2020), and conveys Bey’s historic relationship of collaborating with Black subjects and culture in the 20th century through portrait and landscape photography.
Dawoud Bey, Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY, 1978. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of the artist; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco.
Bey’s storied use of the camera began with his godmother, who gave him his first camera, an Argus C3 rangefinder, at age 15. It was a “small black brick of a camera,” Bey recalled. “I never made any interesting pictures with it, but it sparked my interest in learning how to use the camera, and in making photographs.”
The following year, in 1969, Bey visited the pivotal “Harlem on My Mind” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That exhibition, while criticized for largely lacking the work of Black American artists despite its focus on Harlem in the 1930s, was crucial for revitalizing the career of Black photographer James Van Der Zee. Van Der Zee’s portraits of Harlem across the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s had a lasting impact on Bey’s practice.
Van Der Zee’s influence can be seen in Bey’s first major series, “Harlem, U.S.A.” (1975–78), which was the subject of his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Bey’s portraits offer a snapshot into Harlem, paying close attention to the role that performance, dress, style, and shops play in developing community and individuality, as seen in portraits like Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY (1978) and Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY (1976). The series was also personal for Bey, as his parents had met at a church in Harlem before relocating to Queens, where he was raised. “Harlem, U.S.A.” helped Bey hone his use of the camera, portraying Black subjects in a way that went against the colonial language of taking their image, and instead featuring individuals in order to make an image.
Dawoud Bey, A Girl with a Knife Nosepin, Brooklyn, NY, 1990. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of the artist; Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco.
In the 1980s, Bey acquired and learned to use a Busch Pressman 4×5 camera, which led to what is now considered his signature series. He attached a Polaroid back to the camera to use the now-extinct Polaroid Type 55 B&W peel-apart film. This allowed him to create both a positive Polaroid print and a negative that he would use to make exhibition prints in the darkroom. These street portraits—including A Girl with a Knife Nosepin—allowed Bey to further develop his keen ability to see deeply with his subjects. His work countered the careless images of Black Americans that audiences may be accustomed to, either through early photography or the press. Of this era, Bey wrote: “I wanted to address the issue of reciprocity; allowing the subjects to be in possession of their image, and to confirm their self presentation.”
He continued: “In my early portrait based work I always wanted my work to be part of a reciprocal process, to provide a space [for] both my working out my own ideas about the portrait and the Black presence or the portrait and representations of young people. Whether in the streets or studio, I wanted to use the portrait as a vehicle for self presentation.” Although this period of portraiture, from 1988 to 1998, was integral to his development as a photographer, it is one he has moved beyond in his practice.
Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2012. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of the artist; Rennie Collection, Vancouver.
Bey’s practice over the past decade has led him to interrogate memory and space across portraits and landscapes. In what is perhaps Bey’s most emotion-laden series, “The Birmingham Project” (2012), he photographed the community of Birmingham, Alabama, nearly 50 years after the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. The portraits pair adolescents with elders to make palpable the memory of the four girls whose lives were lost in that bombing and the time that has passed since. “The Birmingham Project is the first project in which I directly took on the challenge of how to visualize the past in the contemporary moment,” Bey explained, “to create a kind of liminal space somewhere between past and present.”
This artistic shift to interrogating, in his words, the “narrative of place, and the histories embedded in place” through landscape imagery, is one that Bey described as akin to learning a different language. Yet it’s a style that he is thoroughly comfortable with now.
In the 2017 series “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” Bey traces the escape routes of enslaved people following paths along the Underground Railroad. The pitch-dark color palette makes the images difficult to see, yet offers a visceral sense of what flight might have looked like for those escaping Southern plantations at night.
Dawoud Bey, Cabin Door and Light, 2020. © Dawoud Bey. Courtesy of the artist; Rennie Collection, Vancouver.
Since then, Bey has completed another series, “In This Here Place” (2020), which was shown at Prospect.5 in New Orleans and Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. The series examines the landscapes of five different plantation sites in Louisiana and furthers Bey’s practice of using photography to make the memory of a place tangible. In this new work, showing the afterlife of plantations, Bey recommits his ethics of collaboration to land politics, architecture, agriculture, and cultural memory.
Across his practice, Bey’s photographs honor Black history, enabling it to become what he described as a palpable presence to others. “The photographs are both an act of remembrance,” Bey said, “but also an intricate look at where the narrative begins, that continues to have reverberations in this country for Black people.”