Dawoud Bey: An American Project
On view through March 14, 2021
Since the beginning of his career in the 1970s, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953) has used his camera to create poignant meditations on visibility, race, place, and American history. From early street portraits made in Harlem to a recent series imagining an escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad, Bey explores photography’s potential to reveal communities and stories that have been underrepresented or even unseen. Both a form of personal expression and an act of political responsibility, Bey’s art insists on the power of photography to transform stereotypes, convene communities, and create dialogue.
Dawoud Bey: An American Project traces these through lines across the forty-five years of Bey’s career and his profound engagement with the young Black subject and African American history. The title intentionally inserts his photographs into a long-running conversation about what it means to represent America with a camera. The questions of who is considered an American photographer, or simply an American, and whose story is an American story are particularly urgent today. Bey’s work offers a potent corrective to the gaps in our picture of American society and history—and an emphatic reminder of the ongoing impact of those omissions.
A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY, 1976A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY, 1976
A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY, 1976
Gelatin silver print
Encountering this youth on the street, Bey admired his sophisticated self-presentation: “He is stylin’ big time. He’s cool with his grape drink, his aviator sunglasses, his tracksuit, and his white sneakers. We met on the same patch of sidewalk momentarily . . . I thought the movie theater box office with the lights behind him would be as good a place as any to make a photograph.”
A Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY, 1976A Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY, 1976
A Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY, 1976
Gelatin silver print
Early in his career, Bey realized the importance of collaborating with his subjects to make a picture that would also serve as a dialogue between artist and subject: “I wanted to photograph this man in the bowler hat who was talking to a group of three friends and I had no idea how to interrupt their conversation in order to do so. This is when I first realized that it wasn’t just about the photograph; it was also about establishing a relationship out of which comes the photograph.”
Girls, Ornaments, and Vacant Lot, Harlem, NY, 2016Girls, Ornaments, and Vacant Lot, Harlem, NY, 2016
Girls, Ornaments, and Vacant Lot, Harlem, NY, 2016
In 2015, Bey returned to Harlem, where he had made his first critically acclaimed body of work, Harlem, U.S.A. If the earlier series is a love letter to the historic epicenter of Black community and culture in America, Harlem Redux is a wistful and elegiac look at its recent, rapid transformation. Bey used the formal vocabularies of landscape and street photography to communicate the neighborhood’s shifting topography, population, and daily rhythms—the impacts of invisible socioeconomic forces outside the frame. His deeply saturated color photographs describe Harlem’s new appearance and lament the disappearance of its rich history. Some commemorate the demolition of African American landmarks such as the legendary jazz club the Lenox Lounge, while others, characterized by absences, emptiness, and disconnection, grapple with the destructive effects of gentrification on the social fabric.
Gerard, Edgewater High School, Orlando, FL, 2003Gerard, Edgewater High School, Orlando, FL, 2003
Gerard, Edgewater High School, Orlando, FL, 2003
Bey has long understood that the act of representation—as well as the corollary act of being seen—is both powerful and deeply political. In this series, he once again turned his attention to teenagers, a population he felt was underrepresented and misjudged, seen either as “socially problematic or as engines for a certain consumerism.” Class Pictures (2001–2006) originated during a residency at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, where Bey began working with local high school students. He later expanded it to capture a geographically and socioeconomically diverse slice of American adolescence.
Usha, Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA, 2006Usha, Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA, 2006
Usha, Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA, 2006
Working in empty classrooms between class periods, Bey made formal color portraits of teens that attend, carefully and tenderly, to their gestures and expressions. He also invited them to write brief autobiographical statements, giving his subjects visibility as well as voice. Class Pictures can also be understood as a play on words, for in several cases, Bey chose to photograph students at elite private schools as well as teens from nearby, poorer neighborhoods, bringing together these subjects in a single space.
Two Boys at a Handball Court, Syracuse, NY, 1985Two Boys at a Handball Court, Syracuse, NY, 1985
Two Boys at a Handball Court, Syracuse, NY, 1985
Gelatin silver print
Throughout the 1980s, Bey continued to use a handheld 35 mm camera. This lightweight apparatus allowed him to respond intuitively and quickly to whatever captivated his eye, and his photographs during this time reflect his knowledge of contemporary street photography and his growing interest in capturing flux, movement, and the play of light and shadow. Although he continued to photograph people, he moved away from formal portraiture, instead endeavoring to capture individuals in more spontaneous ways.
Combing Hair, Syracuse, NY, 1986Combing Hair, Syracuse, NY, 1986
Combing Hair, Syracuse, NY, 1986
Gelatin silver print
In 1985, during a residency at Light Work, a photography nonprofit affiliated with Syracuse University, New York, Bey photographed the city’s African American community. For him, it was both a political and aesthetic choice: “By then I felt that was part of my agenda: to make the African American subject a visible and resonant presence through my photographs [. . .] it was as much about making a certain kind of photograph, and operating within a certain tradition, as it was a deliberate choice to foreground the black subject [. . .] giving them a place . . . on the wall of galleries and museums.”
A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1988A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1988
A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1988
By the end of the 1980s, Bey had thoroughly digested the lessons of working spontaneously with a small camera and desired to work in a way that would allow him to engage more directly with his subjects. He began to make formal “street portraits” with a large-format (4- × 5-inch) camera and Polaroid Type 55 film, which produced both instant pictures that he gave to the sitters and negatives that he used to make large-scale, highly detailed prints that could be enlarged to create monumental portraits. Bey was increasingly ambivalent about the ethics of traditional documentary photography and sought more equitable, reciprocal relationships with his sitters. He began to approach the strangers he wished to portray openly and deliberately, giving, as he writes, “the black subjects [a space] to assert themselves and their presence in the world, with their gaze meeting the viewer’s on equal footing.”
A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1990A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1990
A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1990
Few images of tenderness have such resounding power as this lush portrait of a young, stylish couple embracing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Note how perfectly their bodies fit together as he relaxes his shoulders, allowing her to easily wrap her arms around him protectively, declaring with the upward tilt of her chin and her direct gaze at us that they are together, united in love. Pictures as openly intimate as this one emerged from Bey’s deep and abiding interest in “wanting to describe the Black subject in a way that’s as complex as the experiences of anyone else.”
Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017
Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017
Gelatin silver print
Bey’s most recent work imagines the flight of enslaved Black Americans along the leg of the Underground Railroad that operated in Ohio—the last fifty or so miles before they reached the vast expanse of Lake Erie, on the other side of which lay Canada, and freedom.
Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017
Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017
Gelatin silver print
As a covert network of safe houses and churches, the sites of the Underground Railroad were by necessity secret, and Bey’s landscapes suggest, rather than document, the experience. Photographed by day but printed in shades of gray and black so deep they resemble nocturnes, the sensuous prints conjure a darkness at once ominous and lush. The series title, which is drawn from the last couplet of Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Variations” (1926), suggests a black night that envelops the fugitives in a darkness that serves as a protective embrace: “Night coming tenderly / Black like me.”
Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, from The Birmingham Project, 2012Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, from The Birmingham Project, 2012
Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, from The Birmingham Project, 2012
Rennie Collection, Vancouver
On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, murdering four African American girls inside. Two Black boys were also killed later that same day in the violence that ensued. Bey’s series The Birmingham Project commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of this horrific event, rendering it painfully immediate. Bey made formal portraits of Birmingham children the same ages as the victims and adults fifty years older—the ages the victims would have been had they lived. He then paired the photographs in diptychs that both honor the community’s unthinkable loss and make tangible the continued impact of racism, violence, and trauma in the present
Don Sledge and Moses Austin, from The Birmingham Project, 2012Don Sledge and Moses Austin, from The Birmingham Project, 2012
Don Sledge and Moses Austin, from The Birmingham Project, 2012
Rennie Collection, Vancouver
“Together the sitters for The Birmingham Project are simultaneously surrogates, mourners, witnesses, community, and agents of their own narratives. These subjects, then are not symbols but flesh and bone.”
Dawoud Bey was born in Queens, New York, and began his career as a photographer in 1975 with a series of photographs, Harlem, USA, that were later exhibited in his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.
Since then his work has been featured in exhibitions at numerous institutions worldwide, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Fogg Museum, Harvard University; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), Chicago; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, among many others.
His photographs are represented in collections worldwide, and his critical writings on photography have appeared in numerous publications and exhibition catalogues. Bey received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” fellowship in 2017 and is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University and is currently Professor of Art and a Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998.
Dawoud Bey on Visualizing History
Photographer Dawoud Bey’s work grapples with history. The artist asks, “How can one visualize African American history and make that history resonate in the contemporary moment?” Here he discusses several series, sited from Harlem to Birmingham to the Underground Railroad routes of northeastern Ohio, each of which works to make histories visible.
Discussion of Dawoud Bey: An American Project (A Three-Part Series)
Listen in as Mellon Undergraduate Curatorial Fellows, Kayla Gaskin (Emory University, Class of 2020) and Taylor Roberts (Oglethorpe University, Class of 2021) discuss Dawoud Bey’s work. Kayla and Taylor worked in the Photography Department at the High during the second year of their fellowships, 2019-2020. In the three short videos in the playlist below, they provide an insightful overview of Bey’s photography and discuss the power and significance of his work.
Dawoud Bey: An American Project is co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
This exhibition is made possible by
Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor
Exhibition Series Sponsor
Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporters
Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell
Ambassador Exhibition Supporter
Rod and Kelly Westmoreland
Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
W. Daniel Ebersole and Sarah Eby-Ebersole
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.