April 17 – October 3, 2021
Over the past 46 years, artist Dawoud Bey has presented humanistic black and white photographs of incredible depth and specificity. Here, a barber named Deas McNeil. There, a boy curious about the camera. Notice the waxed shoes, how a girl searches for something in two oversized satchels. Notice a fur coat, embroidered band uniforms, a man wearing a collar with an “E” on it. Notice smiling, waiting. This is Harlem, circa 1976; Syracuse, 1985; Harlem again; and Brooklyn, 1988-1990. These photographs are direct, honest, respectful and familiar. Although these are street photographs, the house doesn’t feel far away, maybe just around the corner.
In a short story included in the monograph Dawoud Bey, see deeply (2018), Hilton Als imagines a young black man admiring Bey’s portraits and street scenes, especially their depictions of blacks: “What he liked about the pictures was the way the subjects held their own validation. in their hands, their eyes, without being reduced to an ideology.
Of life, Bey returns the character. There are nearly 80 photographs in his traveling retrospective, An American project, the artist’s first in 25 years, organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, a native of SFMOMA. The double portrait Kerry and Cheryl I (1993) shows actress Cheryl Lynn Bruce lying on a hot red stretch. She rests her head against her husband, painter Kerry James Marshall, and gazes resolutely into the camera. A girl with school medals (1988) shows a slender girl also looking at the camera, her medals pinned proudly to her shirt. A man wearing a felt hat graciously rests his hand on the metal railing behind him. His index finger forms an arc almost as perfect as the brim of his hat in A man in Fulton Street and Cambridge Place (1988). In Whitfield (1991), artist Whitfield Lovell sits in a three-quarter pose against a brown background as if preparing for a Rembrandt-style portrait, but looks down as if a passing thought reminds him of something that he did not like.
Bey’s large-format color Polaroids from the 1990s divide, bring together and reiterate their subjects. A single work in this series generally comprises several photographs, probably generated within seconds of each other. However, they don’t always line up perfectly. county (1996) includes six separate framed transfer prints, as if Earl were behind a checkered window. At the junction of two images, something changes. Then, as if to avoid misinterpreting this kind of portraiture, another series, Bey’s “Class Pictures” from the early 2000s are exhibited with statements written by the students represented. In his statement, a student, Omar, reflects on how people perceive him: “I think people see my skin color first.
Wary of popular prejudices, Bey’s retrospective reflects gaps and absences. Five prints from the “Harlem Redux” series (2014-17) return to contemporary Harlem to make it a construction site with more tourists than inhabitants. In Bey’s hands, Harlem is the memory of a more comfortable place and less marked by corporate greed. His West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, NY (2016), is a photograph of a graffiti architectural rendering probably from the fence of a construction site. Someone wrote various names on the render where the commercial signage could read: “H&M”, “Home Depot”, but also “Dope Spot!” “,” Welfare Office “; letters.
The shortcomings and absences are evident elsewhere in Bey’s retrospective, particularly in his powerful work of Birmingham and Ohio. One Sunday morning, September 15, 1963, members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, murdering four girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley. Two Birmingham boys, Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson, were also murdered on the same day in other gruesome racist incidents. Bey’s response comes in the form of portrait sets featuring a Birmingham youth the same age as one of the September 15 victims and an adult the same age the youth would have been had he survived. Between these photographic poles is all that has been lost. In addition to the photographs, Bey also created the video 9.15.63 (2012), a hypnotic split-screen projection that shows Birmingham emptied of its inhabitants.
The night comes tenderly, black (2017), is also uninhabited. Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art and first installed on the pews of that city’s St. John’s Church, a former Underground Railroad site, the dark photograph series reinvents the ways of defiant escapes. the death of slavery. Night Coming Tenderly, Black: Untitled # 17 (Forest) (2017), shows a seemingly impossible tangle of trees and branches, a quagmire. Untitled # 20 (Farm and palisade II) (2017) shows what could be a middle station, a safe house. Untitled # 25 (Lake Erie and Sky) (2017) offers an almost noticeable end of the road – almost Canada, still just enough darkness to safely end a life and death underground journey. Looking at these photographs and all of Bey’s work in general, one can sense a great potential for looking and being – presence, complexity and everyday freedom.