Issue #243  9/4/2018
Photo Book: Seeing Deeply with Dawoud Bey

By Matt Damsker

University of Texas Press. 394 pgs., approximately 300 full-color plates; clothbound, $65; ISBN No. 978-1-4773-1719-8. Information: http://www.utpress.utexas.edu, http://www.stephendaitergallery.com.

This magnificent volume represents a 40-year retrospective of the stunningly humane photography of Dawoud Bey. Born in 1953 in New York, he first came to notice with work shot in the mid to late 1970s and shown in 1979 at the Studio Museum in Harlem. "Harlem, USA" was a series of black-and-white street photos, which contained the seeds of his later color and studio portraiture, all of it capturing the deeply seen character and humanity of his subjects: America's people of color.

Bey was recognized in 2017 with a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," but by then his work had long stood for photography's highest level of achievement and capacity to tell wordlessly profound, compassionately simple stories of the people--and the society--under Bey's scrutiny.

Presenting Bey's life project in straightforward, chronological order, with eloquent essays introducing each section, this book announces itself as one of the medium's great modern compilations. The University of Texas Press, supported by Bey's U.S. representation, The Stephen Daiter Gallery of Chicago, has done Bey more than proud.

But Bey's work, wherever it may be seen (most major museums have collected him), validates itself in virtually every shot, marked by clarity and care of composition, attention to the complex geometries of physical context, and a refusal to indulge easy visual rhetoric. These images speak volumes for themselves, beginning with the Harlem photos that blend the particulars of the Manhattan streets with the highly individuated form, fashions and faces of Harlem's people.

Dawoud Bey, Woman Waiting in the Doorway, Harlem, NY, 1976 (courtesy the photographer and Stephen Daiter Gallery)
Dawoud Bey, Woman Waiting in the Doorway, Harlem, NY, 1976 (courtesy the photographer and Stephen Daiter Gallery)

Standing, strolling, seated, in post offices, on subway cars, by shop windows or in their modest shops, moving past the scabbed facades of buildings, Bey's Harlemites are caught very much in the act of being themselves, reflecting a range--and rage--of inner strength amidst their segregated realities. Bey's feel for the chiaroscuro drama of sun and shadow, fine-grained and caught with a small 35mm camera, suggests interior states nuanced by sparks of laughter or, more typically, a contemplativeness.

Each Harlem image is a world unto itself, touched with greatness, though the 1976 photo of a young woman waiting, tensely and with fierce dignity, in a windowed doorway, is a street masterpiece that clearly points towards Bey's later, increasingly emblematic portraiture.

This would emerge in the 1980s and early '90s, with his black-and-white Type 55 Polaroid portraits of Brooklyn and Washington, DC, residents viewed closely, their surroundings cropped to emphasize the infinite gradations of hope, resignation, defiance, uncertainty and the sheer beauty of their personhood. The book's cover image, of a wary-looking young girl with a knife nose pin from 1990, exemplifies all this, while the photos of young men, striking familiar attitudes of bravado and brotherhood, are the complement.

This style and focus carries into Bey's 20-x-24 color Polaroid studio portraiture, many with soft umber backgrounds that enrich the muted glow of the faces--most of them urban residents, with a celebrity or two, such as artist Sol LeWitt and his wife Carol. Moving into the 2000s, Bey captures the more focused hope--along with a certain world-weariness--of various high schoolers and community people in their classrooms, churches and office space.

Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, Al, 2012 (courtesy the photographer and Stephen Daiter Gallery)
Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, Al, 2012 (courtesy the photographer and Stephen Daiter Gallery)

More recently, Bey turned to a thematic powerhouse with his 2012 "The Birmingham Project," based on the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, AL by the Ku Klux Klan, which killed four young girls and injured 20 others (two boys were shot to death in the bombing's aftermath). Bey took seven years to complete the project, which consists of black-and white dyptychs of unrelated Birmingham residents--youths of the same age as the murdered children, seated with adults the age the boys and girls would be if they were still alive. Photographing in the pews and spaces of Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church and a temporary studio in the Birmingham Museum of Art, Bey transforms the fact of the tragedy into a flesh-and-blood memorialization and a confrontational stare-down of racism. Its visual power doesn't rely entirely on the viewer's knowledge of the context.

"Classic civil rights photographs often mirror this mythology, transforming conflagrations, demonstrations, violence, and death into dramatic and anonymous icons of a troubled nation," writes Maurice Berger in the accompanying essay. "Bey's use of visual surrogates for those lost to history, in contrast, accentuates the individuality and humanity of the bombing victims."

As Bey told the New York Times: "While the horror of the day is clear, the actual identities of the young people have become abstracted in a fuzzy and mythic kind of way…I wanted to give tangible and physical presence [to them]."

Dawoud Bey, from Harlem Redux (courtesy the photographer and Stephen Daiter Gallery)
Dawoud Bey, from Harlem Redux (courtesy the photographer and Stephen Daiter Gallery)

Fittingly, perhaps, Bey returned to his aesthetic proving ground with the "Harlem Redux" series of 2015-17. But these crisp color images focus more on the empty spaces of the neighborhood, now gentrifying amidst the ruins of its past, with its people glimpsed from behind or in the margins, as Bey depicts a more complex geometry--of chain link fencing hung with vintage clothing for sale, of vacant lots and jumbled redevelopment. The more ordered, humanized Harlem of the 1970s has become a puzzle of urban space and race.

The book's penetrating essays offer countless insights and reaction to Bey's 40-year project, from close Bey readers such as Berger, Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, David Travis, Jacqueline Terrassa, Rebecca Walker, Leigh Raiford, and New Yorker critic Hilton Als, whose moody essay-memoir recalls his journey as a young black man coming to terms with himself through his immersion in the literature of Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Elizabeth Hardwick--and the photography of Dawoud Bey.

"The images were of people of color, not unlike himself," writes Als, "and what he loved about the images was how each of the subjects held their own self-validation in their hands, their eyes, without being reduced to an ideology--you know, equating blackness with nobility, that kind of thing. It was such a relief, to see works of art made out of real life, as opposed to real lives being used to reflect the artist's idea of it." May Dawoud Bey long continue to show us to ourselves.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

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