Museum  February 20, 2020  Chandra Noyes

Dawoud Bey Photographs the American Experience

courtesy the artist and sean kelly gallery, stephen daiter, and rena bransten gallery, © dawoud bey

Dawoud Bey, Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY, from the series Harlem, U.S.A., 1978.

For more than four decades, photographer Dawoud Bey has documented life in America through his poignant images of marginalized communities. Beginning in his early twenties in Harlem, Bey took his first camera and created a masterful collection of street photography.

The black-and-white portraits and scenes of modern life from his Harlem, U.S.A. series, are both intimate and evoke universal experiences. From the bustle of city life to quiet moments of reflection, Harlem, U.S.A. garnered Bey his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979 and brought him to the national spotlight.

courtesy the artist and sean kelly gallery, stephen daiter, and rena bransten gallery, © dawoud bey

Dawoud Bey, A Boy in Front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY, from the series Harlem, U.S.A., 1976.

Now the San Francisco Museum of Art (SFMOMA) is placing Bey firmly in the canon of great American photographers in their retrospective Dawoud Bey: An American Project, now on view. Co-curators Corey Keller and Elisabeth Sherman, write that the exhibition, “intentionally inserts Bey’s photographs into a long-running conversation about what it means to represent America with a camera,” placing Bey’s work alongside the timeless American photographs of Robert Frank and Walker Evans.

Though the images from Harlem, U.S.A. are still lauded, Bey has continued to grow and change as an artist, creating moving works at every stage of his career. This exhibition includes images from eight major series, which are arranged both chronologically and to emphasize the connections amongst these works.

addison gallery of american art, phillips academy, andover, MA, © dawoud bey

Dawoud Bey, Alva, New York, NY, 1992.

After street photography, Bey explored more composed, formal portraiture in several series, including the Birmingham Project. Commissioned by the Birmingham Museum of Art to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, the series brings to life the losses of that tragic day. Bey evokes those lost lives through a video and portraits that show people that are the ages of the murdered girls at the time of their death and as they would be now, a poignant reminder of all the potential those lives held.

Rennie collection, vancouver, © dawoud bey

Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, AL, from the series Birmingham Project, 2012.

In recent years, Bey has returned to his artistic roots for Harlem Redux, examining the changing nature of the neighborhood he once knew so well. These color photographs show how gentrification has changed the people and places he documented in the 1970s, as he once again gives voice to neglected communities.

courtesy the artist and sean kelly gallery, stephen daiter, and rena bransten gallery, © dawoud bey

Dawoud Bey, Girls, Ornaments, and Vacant Lot, Harlem, NY, from the series Harlem Redux, 2016.

How we document history, the passage of time, and a social justice mission are at the core of the Birmingham Project, Harlem Redux, and his most recent series, Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017). For this series, Bey’s dark landscape photographs of important sites of the Underground Railroad in Ohio are imbued with mystery. In the pre-Civil War era, escaping slaves were forced to travel in the dark of night, keeping hidden in the day. But in Night Coming Tenderly, Black, which takes its name from a Langston Hughes poem, blackness is at the forefront, dominating these images and places, rather than hiding within them.

SFMOMA, © dawoud bey

Dawoud Bey, Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017.

In all his projects, Bey’s mastery of his art form is apparent. Through his remarkable talent and vision, he is able to articulate and evoke the complex racial issues of the past, present, and future in America. “He sees making art as not just a personal expression but as an act of social responsibility, emphasizing the necessary work of artists and art institutions to break down obstacles to access, to convene communities and open dialogue,” said Keller.

Documenting the lives and history of African Americans gets at what it means to be an American, and the powerful role of art and artists. Bey describes his process: “It begins with the subject, a deep interest in wanting to describe the black subject in a way that's as complex as the experiences of anyone else. It's meant to kind of reshape the world, one person at a time.”

Dawoud Bey: An American Project is on view at SFMOMA through May 25, 2020. It then travels to the High Museum of Art in June, and the Whitney Museum of American Art in November 2020.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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