“Bey’s subjects don’t pose for the picture—they inhabit it.”
It’s the quiet that fills Dawoud Bey’s photos. It’s there in the seeming simplicity of Bey’s frame, and in the meditative stillness and sheer unassumingness of his subjects, in their almost-audible breath, in their steady gaze, and in the whispered agreement between the subject and the photographer that seems to run through his images. Bey’s subjects don’t pose for the picture—they inhabit it.
Photographer Dawoud Bey was born David Smikle in 1953 in Queens, New York, where he was raised. He was gifted his first camera, a rangefinder, by his godmother. But Bey didn’t consider shooting in earnest until he became captivated by the controversial show Harlem on My Mind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York, in 1969. It was the first time the institution held an exhibit on black folk—more specifically, on the black folk who lived only a few city blocks north but whose constituency, and even input in the exhibit, had been largely ignored (to this day). Bey might not have entered the museum were there picket lines out front (prior to this he had only visited museums on school field trips), but providence had it the protestors were gone that day. For Bey, the exhibit was pivotal—the “profound experience of seeing black people on the wall of a museum…who looked like people I knew.” Bey began frequenting galleries and museums, where he became inspired by artists and photographers like Romare Bearden, Charles White (whose work Bey’s resembles in its use of portraiture and commitment to the common man), Jacob Lawrence, Emory Douglas, and Mike Disfarmer, and by shows like Irving Penn’s Small Trade—work Bey refers to as “ordinary people in front of the camera, resulting in something profound.”
In 1975, Bey took to the streets of Harlem with an SLR and embarked on what would become his series Harlem USA. He took part in Kamoinge, a Harlem-based photo collective then helmed by photographer Roy DeCarava that, decades later, still continues to support the work of African-American photographers, a group that has included greats like Ming Smith, Louis Draper, Frank Stewart, Beuford Smith, Eli Reed, Anthony Barboza, and, more recently, Radcliffe “Ruddy” Roye, among so many others. DeCarava, the first black Guggenheim Fellowship winner, in 1952, saw beauty and narrative in the photo’s darkest tones and he delivered poetry back in images of deep, detailed shadows and gradations of black. He had the courage to go there, to go that black—in both his silver emulsion and his subject matter—to believe that black had a story to tell, that black was not the negative but the positive. The resulting work was lush, and filled with mystery and humanity. DeCarava became Bey’s mentor.
Black photographers have been active since the Civil War era, yet until recently, few were recognized. Bey began shooting at a time when African-American photographers were few in mainstream photography, when black and photographer were conceived as oxymoronic, as though being the former canceled out the possibility of the latter—an assumption that had continued almost until this decade.
Bey’s Harlem work led to a residency at the Studio Museum of Harlem, where he had a solo show in 1979, at age 25. That residency gave way to dialogue with other artists like David Hammons, Willie Birch, Valerie Maynard, and LeRoy Clarke; those conversations became woven into Bey’s essence, his way of being and working to this day. His stint at the Studio Museum was later followed by a residency at Light Work, in Syracuse, at the Addison Gallery at Phillips Academy, and by an MFA in photography at Yale in 1993; shows at the Walker Arts Center, the Barbican, in London, The Chicago Arts Institute, The National Gallery, in Washington, D.C., among others; more residencies, including the Artists Studio Program in Sweden and at the Detroit Institute of Arts; numerous substantial academic gigs, including professor of photography at Columbia College, Chicago, where he still teaches today; by awards like the Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and MacArthur fellowships; and eventually to 40-plus years of work and multiple books and catalogs.
Seeing Deeply, published by the University of Texas Press, is Bey’s newest book, and his heftiest, at close to 400 pages. It was named one of Time’s “25 Best Photobooks of 2018,” an honor it shared with the reissue of DeCarava’s The Sweet Flypaper of Life. Seeing Deeply encompasses those 40 years of Bey’s work, his numerous photo series, and essays by Bey, Deborah Willis, Hilton Als, Rebecca Walker, Maurice Berger, among esteemed others, writing that creates an extended dialogue with the photos and the world outside the frame. The book is a testament not only to Bey’s long career as a working photographer but to an artist who is relentlessly exploring, reworking, and rethinking his method and medium.
Included are Bey’s earlier, black-and-white 35mm Harlem USA photographs, like “Fresh Coons and Wild Rabbits” (1975), an image that recalls the lost Harlem of James Baldwin short stories; the forever-groovy bell-bottomed and Ray-Ban sporting “A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street” (1976); and “A Woman and a Child in the Doorway” (1975), its frame within a frame (whether of architecture or of light and shadow) a leitmotif in Bey’s earlier work, the rich black of the woman’s and baby’s skin melding into the deep black of the doorway and redolent of DeCarava. There is also Bey’s transcendent, supplicating “Woman in the Light” (1980), her eyes closed, the half-seen man frame right reaching toward but not quite touching her, an image that again evokes DeCarava in its shadows, spirituality, love, and redemptive light. Among Bey’s Small Camera pictures are those Bey produced during his residency at Light Work, also rich with narrative and light and shadow: like the diagonal stripe of light that illuminates the face of the African-American woman combing her child’s hair in “Combing Hair” (1986) or “A Young Man at the Bus Stop” (1985), with its deep shadows and graphic repeating verticals, or “A Young Woman Waiting for the Bus” (1985), gazing at us through a silver sliver of light, while framed within the window of the bus stop (with its “No Loitering Please” sign) appears her almost mirror image—a black woman in white, her back to us, waiting outside.
Bey also produced work in Puerto Rico and Mexico, but he soon tired of the sort of hit-and-run of street photography. He consciously made a move toward prolonging the interaction between the photographer and subject by shooting with a medium-format Polaroid Type 55 film. This also enabled Bey to give his subjects a positive while he kept the negative, leveling the conversation between subject and photographer and resulting in lush images like the vulnerable “A Girl in the Deli Doorway” (1988), the pores of her skin and individual strands of her hair visible against the recesses of the doorway—Bey’s daring to highlight the details in black hair and skin itself a radical act—and “A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop” (1988), in which a young Brooklyn boy with rich black skin calmly looks us in the eye while engrossed in the elongated frozen Foxy Pop that extends from his mouth. There is also the beautiful “Buck” (1989) in his Batman shirt, whose seemingly defiant stare is likely due to his albinism, as well as “A Couple at a Main Street Bus Stop” (1989) in Rochester, New York, a city whose black citizens live as if invisible. These are portraits in which the subjects are clearly complicit, every day folk in every day moments. The images achieve what Bey calls “lifting up largely uncelebrated lives.”
“In ‘Alva,’ the double-framed subject against the brown background first looks askance, while in the second frame she looks directly at us. In both images, her abundant mind-of-its-own hair and sweater are a deep black, her skin an earthy brown, her face half-hidden in shadow.”
Alva, New York, NY, 1992
In the 1990s, Bey went “from the streets into the studio,” taking on a 20-inch-by-24-inch color Polaroid format, working with an assistant and a camera that was 6½ feet deep, and producing large, lush photos against a background often a regal hue of red or brown, a color and practice Bey borrowed from Rembrandt to confer a sense of nobility upon his own subjects.
In ‘Alva,’ the double-framed subject against the brown background first looks askance, while in the second frame she looks directly at us. In both images, her abundant mind-of-its-own hair and sweater are a deep black, her skin an earthy brown, her face half-hidden in shadow. The large-format Polaroid’s emulsion surrounds both frames, binding them together. In later large-format Polaroid portraits, frames divide Bey’s subjects by threes and even fours, revealing multifaceted selves and interrelationships, or isolate details like Mnemone’s lips or the curve of Monique’s hand or Taneesha’s beautiful curls.
The fragmented frames reveal a layered complexity to their black and brown subjects, diverging from the one-dimensional images of black people that historically preceded them. The portraits and isolated details also remind us that photography, since its inception, was used as a means of cataloging (black and brown) humans, of scrutinizing, of phrenology.
Bey’s large-scale Polaroids also extract their subjects from their environment and the often stereotypical narrative of urban poverty. In Class Pictures, his series of portraits of high school students that span 1992 to 2006 and several schools, arts institutions, and residencies nationwide, it is impossible to discern who attends an elite boarding school and who an urban public school without reading the photo caption. The project arose out of Bey’s early question, “What kind of conversation do you think we need to have?” and integrates the many students’ voices and the years of interactions that followed.
Bey’s subjects are neither exoticized nor straining to project a preconceived or idealized version of themselves through the act of being photographed. What we see instead is an ease and synergy between the photographer and subject, a silent conversation, if you will, that the photographer shoots with the space of the frame in mind, and in which Bey strives, as he writes in Seeing Deeply, to situate “the subjects in a neutral space where the entire narrative came to reside in their physical presence.” Further, his African-American subjects’ direct gaze, into the camera, at us, is revolutionary not only in a portraiture tradition that favors looking askance, but in its countering centuries of race relations in America—a society in which African-Americans were once condemned to death for looking white folks in the eye.
Also included among Bey’s prolific photo series in Seeing Deeply is Bey’s Birmingham Project (2012). These are portrait pairings commemorating the four young girls who died in the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama, church bombing, what writer-curator Maurice Berger referred to as “the murder of innocent children in a sacred space.” An additional two youth would die as a result of the subsequent rioting.
United Press International reported at the time:
“Dozens of survivors, their faces dripping blood from the glass that flew out of the church’s stained glass windows, staggered around the building in a cloud of white dust raised by the explosion. The blast crushed two nearby cars like toys and blew out windows blocks away.”
Fourteen-year-old Addie Mae Collins died in the blast. The image of her 12-year-old sister, Sarah Jean Collins, in her hospital bed with bandaged eyes remained with Bey for decades and prompted the project.
The series pairs, through editing, young people the age of the victims when they were killed with those the age of the victims had they lived full lives, almost all of the subjects Birmingham citizens. The images weave together past and present, and are haunted by the act of terrorism and the lives subsumed by it. Bey’s Birmingham portraits preceded white supremacist Dylann Roof’s Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre but viewed today are weighted with the parallel and the fact that history does repeat itself.
Bey is the rare artist, and even more rare African-American artist, who feels at home in arts institutions, until recently mostly white bastions of Western civilization: “Museums are not only where I show my work,” said Bey, “they’re where I do my work.” He is hyperaware of not only the space within his picture frame but also the space in which his work is executed and seen—the space in which his work is publicly framed—“the space in which I’m going to provoke a certain kind of conversation.” His previsualizing his work in that space is often integral to his formulating a project.
Seeing Deeply concludes with Harlem Redux, bookending Bey’s beginnings with Harlem U.S.A and capturing the contradictions that have become Harlem, once the historic heart of America’s African-American life, today whitewashed, and which now remains “Harlem” in movies, myth and memory only. This is best exemplified in Bey’s “Hats and Scarves” (2016), in which among a table of scarf-sporting mannequins, only one head is black. Years earlier, these Harlem street tables would have been filled with small-publisher black-history books, incense, tubs of yellow shea butter and black soap, and chew sticks, while on nearby side streets trucks just up from the South would sell their fresh greens and melons. The colors woven through Harlem Redux reflect the crass capitalism and construction that have consumed the neighborhood, and contrast sharply with the regal hues of Bey’s large-format Polaroid’s and Harlem USA’s lush blacks. The Harlem community captured with warmth and directness in Bey’s earlier series is now gone. As Leigh Raiford notes in her essay on Harlem Redux, “Harlem is seen through crevices, scaffolding, and enclosures and largely absent of human subjects—the access, the humanity, is blocked, perhaps even swallowed by change.”
“Bey’s Birmingham portraits preceded white supremacist Dylann Roof’s Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre but viewed today are weighted with the parallel and the fact that history does repeat itself.”
Trentin Williams and Willie Robinson, Birmingham, AL, 2012
Bey didn’t stop after Seeing Deeply. The photographer completed, in 2018, Night Coming Tenderly, Black, a highly evocative series in which he traces the movement of illicit black bodies through Ohio’s Underground Railroad. These landscapes, photographed at night, are devoid of people—yet the presence and stealth of those who traversed this unknown terrain remain palpable. Bey’s photo at the edge of Lake Erie is filled both with the foreboding enormity of the crossing and with the promise of freedom on the other side—and calls to mind the millions today making similar journeys, fleeing war, violence, hunger, persecution, and injustice.
The photographer is both African-American and hearing impaired, and these facts are simultaneously incidental and yet integral to Bey’s talent and his expression of it: in the grounded hush that pervades his pictures and in his largely black subject matter.
In addition to being a photographer, Bey is also an agile critical thinker and wordsmith. These skills are evident in his abundant writing and the precision of his photo titles, and were fostered by an upbringing that underscored learning and civil rights and also gave way to a renowned newsman brother, Ken Smikle, as well as Bey’s own stint as minister of communications for the Black Panthers.
I met Bey by chance in the mid-1990s, walking a stretch of East London, in an area that at the time was not one generally wandered by nonresidents, nor on a Sunday. His approachability was disarming—especially for a young artist who, I’d later learn, had already had a major museum show and esteemed artists residencies. As it happened, we were both on our way to a gathering at Black Audio Film Collective, a group of African diaspora mediamakers who included acclaimed filmmaker John Akomfrah. Filmmaker Isaac Julien was also a guest. Bey, now as he did then, continues to keep the conversation among artists and on art in almost-constant motion. I’d witness his warmth again at his 2018 talk at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, where he embraced many of his former elementary school classmates from Queens’ P.S. 131.
Before he became a photographer, Bey aspired to be a jazz drummer, training seriously under musicians like Lee Morgan’s drummer Freddie Waits, Albert “Tootie” Heath, and Milford Graves, and even performing professionally. Bey continued to make music even after he embarked on photography, often along with other artists, like Hammons.
This jazz sensibility is woven into Bey’s way of working. It’s present in his precision and rigor, his constant searching to revise his visual language, to push the boundaries of his work, to create with his imagery what he refers to as “a conversation”—that very conscious call and response, between Bey and his subject, Bey and the viewer, Bey and the museum-goer, and in what Bey refers to as a “conversation with history, with those who made photographs.” Adds Bey, “I want my work to add to that conversation.”
MG: I’ve often wondered how your loss of hearing might influence or have influenced your picture-making, if it has presented obstacles or perhaps the opposite—made you a more keen observer.
DB: My hearing loss—from a very young age—is very likely the reason that I developed a more acute visual capacity. When one sense is diminished, one compensates with the overdevelopment of other senses. Of necessity I had to see more, since I was able to take in more information that way than I was through my auditory senses. It seems to explain my growing interest in photography when I was young; it was a way to set down what I was seeing, and it also became my expressive vehicle.
MG: You’ve had a prolific career that has spanned different generations of influential photographers, and black photographers and artists in particular: Louis Draper, Ming Smith, Emory Douglas, Charles White…. Is it possible to say to whose work you might feel most deeply connected to?
DB: My initial community when I started making photographs seriously were those black photographers I met who were part of the original Kamoinge group—Shawn Walker, Lou Draper, Beuford Smith, Jimmie Mannas, Anthony Barboza, Danny Dawson and others. Shawn Walker was probably one of the first I met, and I started spending time in his studio. Roy DeCarava was at the center of that community, and he was a very early influence, since I had decided from the outset that I didn’t want to be a photographer who worked for newspapers or magazines or in a commercial studio, but one who worked independently as an artist. Roy seemed to be the black photographer who was doing that most successfully. He had rigorously developed a language and vocabulary that fused the black subject with his material interpretation of them, through the way his photographs were printed. Not too long after meeting these photographers, I started to meet others at the Studio Museum in Harlem, including Frank Stewart and Jules Allen. I met Carrie Mae Weems at the Studio Museum in Harlem, as well, when she enrolled in the photography class I was asked to teach there.
James Van Der Zee was the first black photographer whose work I came to know, from seeing his photographs in the Harlem On My Mind exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in 1969, when I was 16 years old. Seeing his photographs of elegant black people in a museum made a strong impression on me, and made the idea of showing in a museum a possibility. But Van Der Zee was a neighborhood studio photographer making photographs for anyone who came to his studio requesting to be photographed. Important work resulted from that historically, and in hindsight it became important documentation of the Harlem community in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, but that is not why Van Der Zee made those photographs. They ended up years later being placed in that context but were meant to sit on the mantles and side tables of the people who requested them. Roy DeCarava, on the other hand, made photographs intending for them to be viewed in a fine art context in a gallery or museum, so he became my model.
MG: You’ve also had a long relationship with photographer Alex Harsley and his 4th Street Photo Gallery, which has been known as the black barbershop for the photo community (and Harsley its Sun Ra–style savant) since the 1970s, when it was also home of the collective Minority Photographers.
DB: I first stepped into the 4th Street Photo Gallery around 1976 or 1977. I had heard about it from a photographer friend of mine, Larry Brown. He mentioned it to me and suggested we meet there one Saturday. I went, and Larry never showed up, but I met Alex Harsley. I started spending time at 4th Street, and that became an important place where I started to build another community, both with black photographers like Sulaiman Ellison, Lenny Gittens, Alfred Olusegun Fayemi, Wayne Clarke, Ron Lopez, and Winston Vargas, along with others like Abelardo Morell, Wayne Sides, Brian Rose, and Cynthia McAdams. Alex is someone I’ve been bouncing ideas off of for some 40 years now, and 4th Street remains a place that is kind of a necessary rest stop when I’m in New York.
“My work is more experientially driven and also more driven by the need to figure things out about my subjects by making the work.”
A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop, Brooklyn, NY, 1988
MG: You’ve said that you locate yourself in the “in-between generation,” between the social documentarians and the intellectual postmodernists.
DB: Initially I was working within what would be called the documentary tradition, but my work became less about that tradition and more about finding various ways of making photographs that both pushed my work and ideas forward while allowing me to continue to investigate my subjects. But I’ve never been interested in working from the place of theory, where the work is a response to that. My work is more experientially driven and also more driven by the need to figure things out about my subjects by making the work.
MG: Your initial start was in street photography. You also possess a crystalline precision of articulation about your work—and certainly could have been a writer.
DB: I do consider myself to be a writer and have written on a number of topics that are not related to photography, including contemporary art. I also wrote music reviews for a while, since I am a trained musician who can also write on deadline. I continue to do short-form writing for publications, including Art Forum and Art in America.
I also grew up in a house that was always filled with books, which fueled my love of reading.
My beginnings in so-called “street photography”—which I have never considered to be related to reportage or photojournalism but rather to making expressive photographs in the natural environment of the streets—had to do with my initial influences, most significantly Roy DeCarava. Unlike someone like Gordon Parks, who was making work on assignment for LIFE magazine, DeCarava was making photographs that were the visualization of his own subjective ideas about the world, and about the black presence in that world, using the expressive and poetic language of photography.
Coming of age in the 1960s, there was a saying “You are either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem.” I took that to heart and was very politically active from a very young age, working for the Poor People’s Campaign in junior high school and joining the Black Panther Party by the time I was in high school.
MG: How have the Black Panthers influenced your work?
DB: When I joined the Black Panther Party as a teenager, they realized I was a bit more educated and comfortable with the written word than some other members. There were some real “lumpen proletariats” in the Black Panther Party who came from hardscrabble lives. I, on the other hand, was a young, educated middle-class black kid, who came from a house full of books, with a father who was an electrical engineer.
Because I could write so well, and knew what a press release was, I became minister of information, charged primarily with taking the party rhetoric—i.e., “The fascist pigs have vamped on the black community. We must off these racist pigs”—and turning that into something more nuanced that could play in the press, like, “The black community is tired I of being under constant assault and attack. We demand a greater degree of accountability from the police, who should be servants of our community, not our oppressors,” or whatever.
I was certainly fueled by a belief in the need for social justice and the idealism of the party, along with its commitment to meeting the needs of the working and poor black community. Those principals are still important in the work I do as far as trying to work in a way that makes the museums and institutional spaces I work through become more inclusive.
MG: You are also extremely methodological in your work. Does this reasoning and methodology come about before embarking on a project, or does it evolve and refine itself over the making of the project? Has it always been inherent to your work?
DB: From the beginning my work has been about making photographs about a particular idea or place, initially the Harlem, New York, community. I spent five years making photographs in that community, both learning how to make photographs while also trying to make what I thought was an honest representation of the community and the individuals who lived and worked there. Over those five years, I made different kinds of photographs, from posed portraits to more spontaneous photographs in which I did not engage the subject so much as try to visualize them in the space of their lives. With that project, Harlem, USA, I was also working in response to certain photographs I had looked at up to that point, everything from James Van Der Zee, Roy DeCarava, Walker Evans, Bruce Davidson, and others, trying to add something to the conversation about how Harlem and its people have been visualized in photographs.
MG: What are you looking for or feeling into the moment you shoot? I know you’ve spoken at times about the gesture.
DB: It’s not so much about “feeling” as it is an idea I am trying to visualize over a group of pictures, to give that idea resonance, to think all of the kinds of ways within a certain kind of picture making I can make those ideas resonate in the form of photographs. With the portrait photographs, it’s about a particular population and trying to bring both a collective and individual sense of the population—whether it’s young people or the black subject—to the project.
MG: Your street portraits with Type 55 film were of everyday people, often overlooked because they are black, not well-to-do, and off the beaten path.
DB: The black-and-white street portraits were made in Washington, D.C., and Brooklyn, Harlem, and Rochester, New York, from 1988 to1991. What I wanted to do in that work was to turn the streets themselves into a kind of studio, to make formal portraits in the informal environments of the streets of various communities- Brooklyn, Rochester, Washington, and Harlem- and to make portraits with the subjects that gave them a heightened presence in the world through my photographs of them. All of the black subjects in those photographs direct their gaze to the camera, the lens, that translates into a gaze that is directed at the viewer. I wanted to give them a space to be both seen and engaged on equal footing as the viewer.
MG: How do you, or does one, avoid—and is it possible to avoid—pictures of the powerless becoming, as I believe Kellie Jones said in Dawoud Bey: Portraits, 1975-1995, “casualties of that same society’s visual narratives”?
DB: I don’t see the people that I photograph as being victims or “casualties,” so that narrative simply doesn’t find its way into my work. One’s intentions determine the kinds of photographs one makes, and the narratives of those photographs. So for me that is not an issue, as I’m always looking to describe the fundamental humanity of the people I have photographed.
“With the portrait photographs it’s about a particular population and trying to bring both a collective and individual sense of the population—whether it’s young people or the black subject—to the project.”
Hats and Scarves, Harlem, NY, 2016
MG: What do you look for in choosing a long-term project?
DB: My projects are provoked by the need to describe something, to make visible the things I am thinking about. Sometimes those things have a beginning that goes back much farther than when I decide to make the photographs. The Birmingham Project, for example, goes back to a moment when I was 11 years old and saw a photograph of the surviving sister of one of the four girls who had been killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963. It was a photograph of 12-year-old Sarah Jean Collins lying in a hospital bed, wounded after the bombing. The picture seared its way into my consciousness and came back to me in a flash, 27 years later.
At that point I knew I had to go to Birmingham and figure out what kind of work I could make in response to that horrific moment. From making several trips over seven years, I came to realize that it was not only the four girls who had been killed; two boys had also been killed that day in acts of racist violence. So I decided to photograph young African-Americans in Birmingham who were the same ages as those six young people who were killed, and also to photograph adults who were the ages they would have been had they not been killed. I then put these together as diptychs so that each piece represented 50 years. The form of those photographs came out of the need to talk about that particular moment and history. I also made those photographs in black-and-white, since that is the photographic material that most evokes the past.
MG: Your Birmingham subjects were not paired before you shot them but after. And yet their relationship appears seamless. What were you thinking when you were editing these images?
DB: What I was looking for first were young subjects who were the ages of the four girls and two boys killed in the bombing of the church: 11 and 14 years old for the girls and 13 and 16 years old for the boys. I then sought out adults who were the ages those young people would have been 50 years later, when the photographs would be exhibited for the first time, in 2013. I made them in two different locations, Bethel Baptist Church, which was the church pastored by the activist minister Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, and also in the Birmingham Museum of Art. I wanted to use these two pieces of Birmingham’s social history as the spaces where the subjects could come to be photographed: the black communal and sacred space of the church, and the once segregated space of the museum, which like all pubic institutions in the South was not open to black visitors.
Once I had the individual portraits, I began to look at them in terms of which one would relate to another, a sense of an implied relationship that might be a gestural similarity, a dispositional relationship, or in some cases a physical relationship. Because I wanted to imply the passage of time and the idea that this young person might have grown to be that adult, there had to be some kind of rationale that dictated putting those two photographs together so that they “completed” each other.
MG: When you were making your portraits, and your large-format Polaroids in particular, did you ever think about Malick Sidibé’s or Seydou Keita’s work, their sense of expression or studio portraiture?
DB: I did not see the work of Keita and Sidibé until decades after I started making my own portraits in the streets of various black communities. So that was not a point of reference for me. My initial point of reference were the portraits by James Van Der Zee, Mike Disfarmer, Irving Penn’s Small Trades photographs, and Richard Avedon’s portraits, among others. I saw all of that work in the 1970s, when I was starting out, and those pictures became both an inspiration and a point of departure for me.
MG: You spoke of your portraits and your choice of a dark, lush background as a reference to Rembrandt and the masters. Can you talk about that a bit more?
DB: When I was in the 6th grade I had to write a report on Rembrandt. That was the first time I really studied his paintings. Something about way he used light to imbue the subject with a psychological dimension and also the isolation of the subject in the space of the studio appealed to me. They had a sustained and deep sense of both stillness and interiority. So Rembrandt became a point of reference when I moved from the streets into the 20-by-24 Polaroid studio.
MG: What do you look for in editing and sequencing your work?
DB: At this point my projects exist largely in the spaces of museums and galleries, so I am not thinking about editing as a process that results in a sequence for a book. When my work is installed for exhibitions, I often leave the sequencing up to the curator, believing that there is the possibility for me to learn something about my own work by seeing how someone else responds to it.
MG: Your style is constantly evolving, pushing the medium, going deeper, stepping away from what you did before…. You’re constantly challenging yourself, exposing yourself to other artists and other work. It’s never the same river twice. Which is unlike many other photographers who find a signature style and continue to go deeper into it.
DB: More so than a “style,” I like to think of it as finding the form that most suits the thing I am making work about. That can mean a choice of photographic material, i.e., black-and-white or color, scale, and whether or not the narrative is centered more on place or more on the human subject. These are conscious decisions that go into making a very particular kind of photographic object. I don’t rely on emotion or happenstance in shaping the work.
MG: More recently, you’ve moved away from figurative images toward landscapes. You called a similar earlier move “woodshedding.” Can you talk about that and is that what you feel you’re doing now? And if so, why now, at this point in your career?
DB: Since 2014, I’ve been making work that is about the narrative of place, initially by spending four years, from 2014 to 2017, making photographs about how the social and physical landscape of Harlem, New York, is being transformed by the forces of global capitalism and gentrification.
“The Harlem community that I photographed from 1975 until 1979 is now a very different community. Increasingly it has been, and continues to be, reshaped by social and economic forces. As a result, there is an increasing disruption of place memory, as significant pieces of the community’s history are torn down and replaced by big-box chain stores and luxury apartment towers.”
A Woman and a Child in the Doorway, Harlem, NY, 1975
The Harlem community that I photographed from 1975 until 1979 is now a very different community. Increasingly it has been, and continues to be, reshaped by social and economic forces. As a result, there is an increasing disruption of place memory, as significant pieces of the community’s history are torn down and replaced by big-box chain stores and luxury apartment towers.
Because of my own interest and history in that community, I felt some urgency about making photographs about the changes that were taking place as they were happening, to try to describe what that kind of transformation looked like, rather than the eventual aftermath. I required a very different conceptual and formal language to make that work, since what we might call “the urban landscape” has not been the subject or form of any work that I had made before, even though clearly the environment has previously been the context for my work and the space that the human subject inhabits. But in this work, place itself became the subject. It took me a year of persistently photographing before I figured out the language that I needed to make that work, and to wrap a sense of visual poetics around this rather disruptive thing that is taking place in Harlem.
More recently I spent a year and a half photographing in Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, making work that is about the history of the Underground Railroad. That work is related conceptually to The Birmingham Project in that it attempts to visualize or evoke the past in the contemporary moment.
The photographs that I made there are intended to evoke the sensory and visual sensation of the movement through the darkness of antebellum Cleveland and Hudson, the landscape of escaping slaves, an enveloping darkness that was a spatial passage to liberation. The photographs are a reimagining of the past made in the contemporary moment, an invoking of the historic as it exists in the present. They are loosely based on facts as best we know them, and otherwise imagined. They are not meant to be documentary in any conventional sense.
The dark nighttime landscapes are meant to suggest the spaces engaged and encountered by the fugitive black bodies moving through the landscape under cover of darkness, stopping at various Underground Railroad “stations” while awaiting the passage across the water to freedom in Canada. To revisit, bear witness to, and visually reinhabit those moments is the ambition of this work and project. We come to see Cleveland through the eyes of those furtive black bodies moving through that landscape. The photographs are printed very dark in order to suggest the movement under cover of darkness.
But my work has always been about trying to make richly evocative and deeply felt photographs, whether of a person or of a place. So I think the deeper quality of heightened observation runs through all of my work.
MG: Your photo books each contain a lot of text, often by several different writers, exploring multiple facets of your work. That is, the text in many ways, seems integral to the book, and perhaps even integral to the work.
DB: Well, I don’t necessarily buy the adage “A picture is worth a thousand words.” I think photographs and text can have a very symbiotic relationship. Photographs are inherently mute. There is generally more information outside of the frame that we don’t know than there is information included in the photograph. Certainly in my books I want to make it clear that the photographs are part of a set of expressive and discursive ideas, and those ideas can be talked about, responded to, and amplified through the writing. In Class Pictures, it was important to have the voice of the young people I had photographed as a kind of self-descriptive voice that would exist alongside my portrait, in order to create a specific complexity to the narrative of each individual that no photograph alone could provide.
In Seeing Deeply, I selected writers who I thought could respond interestingly to each group of pictures in a way that would both amplify my own intentions while allowing space for each writer to have their subjective reflections on the work. Again, the essays are not meant to explain the work as much as to respond to it.
MG: Where do you hope to go with your work artistically/photographically at this time in your life? You’ve published several books, you’ve received the Guggenheim Fellowship and the MacArthur genius grant…. I’m wondering where these landmarks might fit into your thinking about your work and, having achieved them, if you feel free to create now?
DB: For now, I’m looking to continue working on this “history” project that I started in Birmingham and continued in Ohio. I am planning on spending time in New Orleans to see what piece of that complex history, in relation to the African-American experience, I can wrap myself around and make work about.
At any given point the awards and grants that I have gotten buy me the time to delve more extensively into whatever project I am working on. The MacArthur fellowship allows me to take even more extended time away from teaching so that I can focus solely on my work. It also allows me the time to respond to increasing opportunities that the “Genius Award” created, given how it has raised my profile even further.
I’ve been teaching for several decades, managing to remain disciplined enough that I’ve always spent my time away from teaching engaging in my own practice. But it has been a juggling act. The MacArthur has made it less of a juggling act.
MG: You began as a jazz drummer and then transitioned to photographer. Do you feel your jazz drumming and/or jazz itself remains present in your work, and if so, how?
DB: Music was my first expressive form, though with my hearing, I was clearly not destined for a long career in music. But I played professionally for a number of years, and was fortunate to study with some really respected drummers, both jazz drummers like Freddie Waits, Tootie Heath, and Milford Graves, as well as traditional West African drummers such as Olukose Wiles, Chief James Hawthorne Bey, Neil Clarke, and Baba Kwame Ishangi. What I learned from all of them was discipline and rigor of practice, as well as understanding the form of the music and to be able to both play and improvise inside of that structure.
Improvisation is not so much the search for a “perfect note” as it is trying to create something newly and spontaneously expressive while not merely relying on what you have played before—to constantly reinvent the music. And to have the technical and expressive skill to be able to do that.
I think my background in improvisational music as a drummer may be one of the things that gives me the freedom to take risks, and to continually invent new ways of working. As a musician one understands the form of the music, the genre, the parameters, and then one begins to play. It’s the same for me in making my photographs.
Dawoud Bey is scheduled for two retrospectives in 2020: at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, and at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
Marlaine Glicksman is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer based in New York. She is the director and producer of The Commandment Keepers.
University of Texas Press
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Marlaine Glicksman. Images @ Dawoud Bey.)