Dawoud Bey: An American Project @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, comprised of black-and-white and color photographs and one video installation, hung against white and dark grey walls on the 8th and 1st floors of the museum.

The show was co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and was co-curated by Elisabeth Sherman, assistant curator at the Whitney, and Corey Keller, curator of photography at SFMOMA.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 11 gelatin silver prints, 1975, 1975/2019, 1976, 1976/2019, 1977, 1978
  • 10 gelatin silver prints, 1985, 1985/2019, 1986
  • 10 pigmented inkjet prints, 1988/2019, 1989/2019, 1990/2019
  • 1 dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid), 1991; 3 dye diffusion transfer print (Polaroid) diptychs, 1992, 1993; 1 set of 3 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), 1992; 1 set of 4 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), 1996; 2 sets of 6 dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), 1993, 1996
  • 8 pigmented inkjet prints, 2003/2019, 2005/2019, 2006/2019
  • 7 pigmented inkjet print diptychs, 2012
  • 1 high definition video, color, sound, 11:26, 2012
  • 6 pigmented inkjet prints, 1 pigmented inkjet print diptych, 2014/2019, 2015/2019, 2016/2019
  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 2017

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Organizing a retrospective survey of a major photographer’s career offers an opportunity to do several things at once. At its core, it is an exercise in clarifying (and sometimes re-envisioning) the arc of an artist’s development, so we can crisply follow along as one project progresses into the next. Often this means rethinking the pivot points and breakthroughs that provide important highlights, and reconsidering where the unique innovations took place and how the ideas that led to them formed and evolved. And when hosted at a major New York museum like the Whitney, a retrospective also creates the placement of a prominent historical marker, noting the moment when the institutional art world honored the achievements of a career. Such an exhibit, like this one for Dawoud Bey, is therefore both a curatorial effort at structuring and organizing and a celebratory moment of recognition, all wrapped up in a chance to educate and inspire a broader audience.

The curatorial team of Elisabeth Sherman and Corey Keller has done a superlative job of taking some five decades of worthy photographic output and boiling it down into a succinct and powerful progression. For those that haven’t followed Bey closely over the years, the artistic timeline presented here places Bey’s compassionate thinking about portraiture (and later, both time and landscape) at the center, with each successive effort building on the last. Few retrospectives I have seen feel as step-wise constructed, with learnings and reactions from one set of pictures leading quite directly to a new round of experiments. As seen here, Bey is undeniably an artist who is reflecting deeply on each body of work he makes, and drawing insights (about himself, his subjects, and his techniques) from those efforts that readily inform his evolving artistic voice.

The first two decades of Bey’s career (from roughly the mid 1970s through the mid 1990s) form a fascinating continuum, with his fundamental desire to connect more meaningfully with his subjects manifesting itself in camera, setting, and aesthetic choices that get increasingly slower (or larger, in terms of the cameras) and more deliberate. The journey starts with Bey in his early 20s, using a handheld 35mm camera to make pictures on the streets of Harlem, and right from the start, he was committed to making photographs of Black people that saw them as complex individuals rather than stereotypes. These early pictures turn on nuances of honest expression, pose, and mood, from the satisfied swagger of a sunglassed young man in front of a movie theater and the understated warm confidence of a barber, to the anxious look of a girl in her Sunday best waiting in a doorway and the sassy struts of two girls in front of Lady D’s. Bey was attentively and respectfully looking for connection, and he found it more often than many street photographers do.

A decade later, Bey’s photographs were still sensitive and approachable, but they had become aesthetically much more sophisticated, actively playing with contrast and shadow. From the images he made in Syracuse in 1985 (during a residency at Light Work), it’s clear that he was starting to slow down – even when working in the streets with a handheld camera, he was acutely aware of composition and framing, moving beyond the emotional terrain of a central figure to better include and structure the surroundings. His palette gets richer, darker (perhaps with a nod to Roy DeCarava), and in a sense more extreme, with the visual tussle of light and dark giving vitality to his pictures. This is particularly apparent in images of a man with bus transfer and two boys on a handball court, and in shadowed images that cut across parked cars and stairways and spotlight people waiting for the bus.

But by 1988, Bey had deliberately moved on from the handheld camera, adding a 4×5 large format camera to his artist toolbox. He was still making photographs in the street, but the bulky camera removed any sense of illicit shooting – it forced him to work more slowly. To make portraits, he needed to build relationships with his sitters, and that meant approaching them in search of a reciprocal exchange rather than a one sided visual transaction. The images he made in the next few years have been enlarged here, to larger than life sized, making each encounter that he had and each face that he met that much more prominent. There are essentially no misfires in the group presented here – the boy with the foxy pop, the girl with the knife nose ring, the girl with her school medals (and a fan club button), the man leaning on the handlebars of a bicycle, the young man with his thin tie tucked into his pants at a tent revival, they’re each a single frame distillation of personality, filled with a surprising degree of openness, honesty, and trust.

And Bey didn’t stop there. A few years later, he gained access to one of the massive 20×24 inch Polaroid cameras and set it up in his studio. With this new tool, he had to intentionally slow his process down once again – sitters came to his space and posed for lengthy sessions, essentially removing the last vestiges of street photography spontaneity from the process. He had to talk, and make them comfortable, and spend time, which led to photographs that are filled with subtlety and nuance. Aesthetically, for the most part, Bey didn’t limit himself to a single frame encounter with this beast of a camera. Instead, he made sets of images of each sitter, which later took shape as diptychs, triptychs, and even sets of as many as 6 prints, the images overlapping or cobbled together into composite portraits. If Bey was looking to capture the multiplicity and complexity of a individual personality (and an almost a Cubist sense of multiple views occurring simultaneously), he found it. Faces jitter and multiply, angles of attention change, and various body parts flow in and out of focus, resulting in oscillating aggregations that feel rich and deeply engaged.

By the mid 1990s, having followed his twenty year interest to its essential limit – with the largest possible camera and the slowest possible engagement with his sitters – and having mastered his own brand of engaged photographic portraiture, Bey seems to have found himself at an artistic wall, which was probably a bit scary actually. On the surface, it appears that his artistic pivot (which took shape as his Class Pictures series) was to leverage his accumulated talents as a portraitist and to extend himself beyond Black subjects. And while this is factually true, my read of the pictures is that Bey actually became interested in thinking about time, and in particular, how photographs measure out and demarcate the passage of time. In some sense, all of the projects Bey has done since this 1990s fracture point have been rooted in a sophisticated (and perhaps iterative) examination of time.

The Class Pictures photographs apply all of Bey’s photographic (and emotional) strengths to engagements with a diverse group of high school kids from around the country. In addition to making attentive portraits of the kids (he set up his camera in empty classrooms during school hours), he encouraged them to add their own inscriptions. These short texts give an almost audible voice to each sitter, as they talk about their backgrounds, challenges, and identities. In these works, Bey has expanded the definition of portraiture to add in this text-based component, but he has also centered his approach on a particular moment in life where we are most uncertain about who we are (or might become). The project is a study of the complexities of adolescence, and also of that specific span of time when we are trying on different selves.

In his next project, Bey builds on this notion of measuring time, simultaneously moving backward and forward to consider the 50 year anniversary of the bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. With portraiture his now well-ingrained strength, he made paired images (by gender) – one of a young person the same age as those who were killed in the bombing, the other of an older person, exactly 50 years older, as if those who had died had lived on to live full lives. The portraits meet Bey’s exacting standards of compassionate engagement, but it is the conceptual twist on the 50 year time span that gives the photographs their enduring punch. The artworks are less about particular people than about the contrast between the innocence of youth and its scattered searching moments of hope, wariness, and optimism, and the knowing faces of age and experience, where warmth and weariness come in seemingly equal doses. The bombing disrupted the normal passing of time, and Bey’s project amplifies that dislocation.

In his most recent work, Bey has moved beyond portraiture of people to portraiture of places, particularly those where the passing of time has resonance. Half a dozen years ago, Bey returned to Harlem and made photographs of street life, largely devoid of people. Many of the views are carefully divided, split by a fence pole, a coffee shop wall, or an urban tree, or layered into spreads of foreground and background. The images wrestle with issues of gentrification, change, and separation, where the old Harlem has actively been replaced by something new.

The newest pictures in the show come from Bey’s series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, from 2017. These works document farmhouses, picket fences, and swaths of forest in Ohio, each of the locations a stop on the Underground Railroad headed north to Lake Erie. Bey applies his slow looking approach to these quiet landscapes, photographing them in almost darkness, where details shimmer into view and then return to the shadows of night. And while Bey is wrestling with the echoes and legacies of time in these images, many capture a feeling of tense emotion, of running through the dense directionless forest, coming upon a farmhouse, and wondering whether it might be safe to approach. Bey finds lovely details to distract us, like curving apple boughs and thickets of silvery undergrowth, but the sense of fear is never far away, even when we can peek through a slim opening in the trees to see the foggy water of the lake, our desperately hoped for destination. In a sense, he has collapsed time here, allowing the land to reveal its hidden ghosts and histories, and his deliberate approach to engaging the land is exactly the same as it had been with his human sitters – he was patient, he listened, he watched, and he ultimately uncovered and photographed powerful nuances that normally go unnoticed.

In the end, this is a very measured, methodical, and often inspirational retrospective, one that follows its underlying artistic ideas faithfully and uses Bey’s various projects as examples of how his voice has evolved. What most impressed me was how consistently thoughtful Bey has been in approaching his chosen subject matter, both in terms of what he decided was important to photograph and how he built an evolving artistic practice around deeply engaging with those subjects. Every photographer has to figure out his or her own way to be an artist, and this retrospective offers a compelling model for success. Picking something you care deeply about, tenaciously working at trying to see it more clearly and with more nuance, and continually challenging yourself to take risks and go further might seem like a photography cliché, but it has clearly yielded impressive results for Bey.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibit, there are of course no posted prices. Dawoud Bey is represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago (here), Sean Kelly Gallery in New York (here), and Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco (here). Bey’s work has only begun to surface in the secondary markets in recent years, with prices for the few lots that have sold ranging from roughly $2000 to $35000.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Another great retrospective and collectordaily insightful write up.
    For me, the Class Pictures and the Night landscapes are particularly impressive and inspiring.

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