Museum  January 8, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Photographer Dawoud Bey Reimagines Sites of the Underground Railroad

Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

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

In a new body of work from Dawoud Bey, the prolific portrait photographer explores blackness from a new angle: landscapes set at twilight. Night Coming Tenderly, Black, originally commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial of International Art, and opening this week at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) shows Bey working with landscapes in the same intimate way he usually photographs people. The 25 large-scale black and white photographs on display depict scenes in and around Hudson and Cleveland, Ohio, a final stop on the Underground Railroad before fleeing slaves reached Canada.

Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #4 (Leaves and Porch), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Taking its title from the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations,” Night Coming Tenderly, Black also pays homage to the photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009), a pioneer of fine art photography, who documented African American life and developed printing techniques for the dark tones Bey uses in this series. Hughes’ poem, DeCarava’s methods, and Bey’s landscapes all imagine a world in which blackness is central and celebrated, rather than situated as the “other”. For fugitive slaves, the darkness of night was also the safest time of day, and probably the only way they would have viewed the scenes Bey depicts, as the daylight hours would have been spent in hiding. Through this series of dark and mysterious images, Bey seeks to “reimagine and evoke the sensory and spatial experience of movement through the landscape.” By showing us what they would have seen, Bey puts us in the shoes of fugitive slaves, giving us a momentary glimpse into that unimaginable experience. 

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #18 (Creek and House)
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #18 (Creek and House), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #2 (Trees and Farmhouse)
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #2 (Trees and Farmhouse), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse)
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #12 (The Marsh
Courtesy Art Institute of Chicago

Dawoud Bey. Untitled #12 (The Marsh), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953) has long been an important documenter of Black American life. His earliest photographs captured life on the streets of Harlem in the 1970s. In 2012, the AIC displayed the collected photos of Harlem USA (1975–1979) together for the first time and added them to the museum’s collection. Bey is best known for his socially-engaged, intimate portraits, which give us access to the interior lives of his subjects. Most recently, this has included portraits of marginalized youth. In 2017, Bey received a MacArthur Genius grant for his work as a photographer and educator.

To accompany Night Coming Tenderly, Black, Bey has chosen around three dozen photographs from the Art Institute’s collection to be displayed concurrently. The exhibition is on view January 11 through April 14, 2019, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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