Dawoud Bey, In This Here Place @Sean Kelly

JTF (just the facts): A total of 24 black and white photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the entry area and the main gallery space. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made in 2019. Each of the prints is sized 48×59 inches, and is available in an edition of 6+2AP.

The show also includes a video installation, on view in the downstairs gallery. “Evergreen”, from 2021, is a 3-channel video with sound, approximately 12 minutes in duration. It is available in an edition of 4+1AP.

Four black and white photographs from earlier projects are on view in the smaller front gallery, hung against dark grey walls. Two are from The Birmingham Project, from 2012. These diptychs are archival pigment prints, sized 40×32 inches (each panel), and available in editions of 6+2AP. The other two are from Night Coming Tenderly, Black, from 2017. These prints are gelatin silver prints, each sized 48×59 inches, and available in editions of 6+2AP.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: It’s altogether exciting to watch an established, mature photographer hit his stride and make durably important and engaging work. At this point in his career, Dawoud Bey has been around the artistic block enough times to have both honed his craft and come to understand the strengths of his own voice, and his new body of work feels polished and sophisticated in ways that only long, methodical experience tend to produce.

As seen in his superlative 2021 Whitney Museum retrospective (reviewed here), Bey has worked through plenty of transitions and evolutions in his artistic career – from small camera, to medium format, to extra large Polaroid; from street photography, to street portraiture, to studio portraiture; and of late, from portraiture, to urban landscape, to richly resonant historical landscape.

The work on view in this gallery show forms the last part of a three-part history-centered project, in which Bey has actively wrestled with some of the traumas that underlie African-American history. His 2012 The Birmingham Project compassionately considered the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, using formally clear portraiture to both measure the passing of the 50 year span between past and present and to come to terms with the loss of the children’s lives. His 2017 Night Coming Tenderly, Black series applied a similar intensity of looking to Underground Railroad locations on the way to Lake Erie, making portraits of places filled with enveloping darkness, tense emotion, and the lingering ghosts of history.

Bey’s newest project, In This Place Here, continues his measured investigation of Black history and its charged relationship with the American land. These new photographs (and an accompanying video work) were made at plantations along the banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana, and largely document now silent slave cabins and overgrown sugarcane fields. Through the process of making these images, Bey has become both an active and attentive witness to the traumas of the past, and a thoughtful visual interpreter of that legacy. (One gallery presentation side note: this show offers smartphone-accessible audio technology which allows visitors to hear Bey speak in his own voice about his thoughts and inspirations for each of his photographs. These short audio snippets are both unobtrusive to the usual viewing experience and well worth discovering, and they reinforce the framework of Bey as our guide.)

Many of Bey’s compositions use the abandoned slave cabins as their main subject. Given the humble simplicity of the architecture (single room construction, plank siding, cinder block foundations), Bay’s formal photographic vision is a natural match, and most of the weathered cabins are resultingly seen as squared off views, elemental shapes, and pared down geometries. Bey uses contrasts of light and shadow to then activate these blocks and boxes, with bright light elegantly illuminating the angled edges of open doors and dark shadows fluttering across rotting siding or creating sharp pools of blackness behind walls. In a few cases, picket fences provide additional texture and patterning, the rough hewn planks tightly hemming in the cabins and a darkly shadowed example providing an unmistakable foil with the all-American stereotype of traditional picket fences (particularly those painted white). Other images have an even more haunted and spooky feel, with open windows (with parted burlap curtains) and empty wooden benches making us feel like the ghostly inhabitants have just left or are hidden out of view. Bey’s photographs of the decaying cabins are consistently tactile and echoingly empty, amplifying their now muted lessons. Like tombstones or poignantly grim memorials of horrors endured, the cabins remain, and Bey has asked us to look closely at what they still represent.

In another group of images, Bey turns the focus toward the nearby nature, in the form of the majestically ageing trees, branches, and hanging mosses. In “Tree and Cabin”, he centers an old, ivy covered tree right in front of a slave cabin, the juxtaposition reminding us that the tree has been a witness to everything that occurred there. The details of the leaves and moss are delicate and precise, but the undercurrents of time passing and of lingering sorrow and weariness are strong. Other works use a similar method to mark time, where thick cragged branches (covered by tiny ferns) and overgrowths of hanging moss find nature slowly renewing itself. But the ominous resonances of the history of these places is never far from view, in the form of black silhouetted leaves that frame a view of a barn, or the swamp waters and bayous where slaves once escaped and hid, now seen as thickets of angled branches, misty waters, and yet again, more ancient trees which provided shelter and protection during the darkest days.

Bey is also interested in the wider role plantations and slavery played in the building of the American economy. He shows us the river itself, as seen through a stand of submerged trees, reinforcing its use as a transportation thoroughfare for the goods coming from the plantations. He then connects that water to the bright line of an irrigation ditch, which like an abstract zip through the landscape shows us the scale of the sugarcane fields. Other works do further locating of boundaries and edges, where the controlled fields meet the wildness of the forest undergrowth. In particular, a series of three low-angle, texture-heavy images creates the sensation of walking into the fields, where the stalks of sugarcane grow high, creating an envelopingly claustrophobic feeling the further we are pulled in. As deeper historical backdrop for the haunting images of the slave cabins, these photographs provide intentional context for how the plantations operated, and how reliant they were on slave labor to function economically.

In addition to the photographs, the show also includes a three-channel video taken at the Evergreen plantation. The work builds on the video aesthetics that Bey developed for his earlier Birmingham video, which slowly and attentively panned across the surfaces of the town and then passed down the streets looking up into the trees, eventually ending up at the church. Here, Bey starts with nature, in the form of up close views of grasses and sugarcane, and then makes his way to the cabins, looking up into the canopy of the trees, and then later wandering down the dirt roads past the cabins. The echoing silence of the place is punctuated by eerie sung vocals (in some cases like shrieks or lamenting screams), phrases from spirituals, and whispered voices saying “someone’s praying” and “just like a dream”. The video is smartly and achingly dissonant, interweaving the beauty of the natural world and the dark history of the plantations in ways that feel both meditative and agonizing.

Seen together, the photographs and video that make up In This Here Place are well-crafted, often sinuously (and uncomfortably) gorgeous, and consistently provocative. Bey has taken a slice of American history (as embodied by the land itself) and given us a complex visual narrative, ripe with tough contradictions and embedded struggles. The formal elegance of Bey’s photographs is so seductive that it openly draws us into these now-dormant settings of ugliness and injustice. But his pictures make clear that that we must confront these places if we want to truly understand our American selves and our national history. As Bey ages, he’s using his art more and more overtly to challenge and teach us, pushing beyond the slow looking of his earlier years to applying that well-honed approach to a broader, more integrated, and more powerfully nuanced engagement with the emotional and historical terrain that sits underneath being a Black American.

Collector’s POV: The prints from In This Here Place are priced between $35000 and $60000 each, depending on the place in the edition. 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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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Monolith Editions (here). Softcover (7 x 9.5 inches), 48 pages, with 27 color photographs. Includes a short text by the artist. Design ... Read on.

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