Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective of work made between 1964 and 2016 and published in 2018 by the University of Texas Press (here). Hardcover (11×12 inches), 400 pages, 129 color and 136 black-and-white photographic reproductions. Essayists include Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, David Travis, Hilton Als, Jacqueline Terrassa, Rebecca Walker, Maurice Berger, Leigh Raiford, and the photographer. $65. (Cover and spread shots below.)


“I’ve often thought of myself as belonging to the in-between generation: the generation after the Documentarians and before the Postmodernists who renounced the documentary impulse completely.”

—Dawoud Bey

Some artists never settle down. Constantly on the lookout for fresh sources of inspiration, which are absorbed rapidly and then expelled, they seem to change addresses every few years, as if driven by a fear that predictability is a sign of weakness.

David Bowie was born with this restless gene, as was David Byrne. It’s not a tarnishing marker to carry. Audiences like surprises and usually aren’t averse to having their approbation tested. Walking into a gallery show by Bruce Nauman, Annette Lemieux, Rona Pondick, Robert Cumming, David Hammons, Michael Spano, or Thomas Ruff, you never know what they’ve found in the icky attics of the subconscious, Goodwill stores, the junk yard, their studios or on the internet—or how you’ll feel about it.

Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) isn’t a restless or deracinated artist. His work originated within the tradition of humanist realism and, for all intents and purposes, he has stayed within its boundaries, shunning the popular allure of Surrealism and Postmodern irony. The challenges and limitations of the still photograph continue to engage him. His first subject—African-American life in the U.S., its people, places, and history—has sustained him for more than 50 years.

This handsome volume allows one for the first time to appreciate the integrity of his career. The pattern of its progress over the decades isn’t an erratic fever chart of zig-zags but a slow, decisive wavelike dialectic, each new phase a thoughtful reaction to the previous one, all of them reinforcing one another.

As a teenager growing up in New York City, Bey had aspired to be a jazz drummer, studying with one of the pioneers of the avant-garde scene, Milford Graves, and with several traditional West African drummers. Only after receiving a Nikkormat from his parents as a high school graduation gift, in 1972, did Bey begin to gravitate away from music and toward photography.

One of the magnetizing influences was a visit to the 1969 controversial exhibition Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital  of Black America: 1900-1968 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Organized as a multimedia pageant of history, it was criticized at the time by black and Hispanic artists as racist (the majority of the artists in the show were white) and by Jews as anti-Semitic (one of the essays in the catalog noted the high number of Jewish landlords in Harlem).

The exhibition was nonetheless well attended, attracting some 75,000 visitors during its three-month run, and was a revelation for younger African-Americans. It presented their recent history with a dignity and breadth they had never seen in a museum before. The historian Deborah Willis, one of the essayists in Seeing Deeply, went back five times. Bey’s visit was his first inside any museum and his first exposure to the portraits of James VanDerZee, who photographed Harlem’s middle-class and upper-class African-Americans in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The first group of pictures in Seeing Deeply—black-and-white street portraits, made in Harlem between 1975-78—reflect the impact of VanDerZee as well as the more peripatetic Gordon Parks. Bey titled the series Harlem, U.S.A.. and first exhibited it there, at the Studio Museum, in 1979.

One of its distinguishing features is that Bey sought to photograph people who took pride in how they looked or what they did. He wasn’t interested in exposing whatever secret pain or shame, economic or personal, they might be concealing. (By doing so, he set himself against the grain of Arbus and Winogrand, both formative artists on the young in those years.) Bey’s parade watchers and church-goers are well dressed—women in furs and hats, men in coats and ties. Even a woman standing in a doorway, who may be a prostitute, has taken a lot of care in putting herself together. Bey pictures her in bright sunshine that allows her skin to glow.

In some of his more ambitious compositions, for example, in Four Children at Lenox Avenue (1977), one detects in the stark contrasts of the clothing worn by the figures, and in their splayed gestures, the influence of Ben Shahn’s quasi-abstract paintings from New York street life. But for the most part Bey keeps a tight focus on the face and body. When he takes his camera into the interiors of businesses, to photograph barbers and cooks, he isn’t concealed or surreptitious. McKinley, the Shoemaker (1975) seems happy to pose in his tiny shop, the polishing and stitching machines crowded behind him in the dimness. Bey’s print brings out the shining metal of the wedding ring on the man’s right hand.

Two Harlem photographs from 1976 document a transition in American black music—perhaps inadvertently but fatefully in retrospect—that would transform the world. In the first, a blues singer is captured in full throat, seated on a concrete block in a vacant lot and emptying his soul through his poor man’s mic-amp-speaker rig. The meager audience for his performance consists of two adults.

In the second photograph, a teenager coolly stares down Bey’s camera. Leaning on a saw horse in front of a movie theater, he is wearing aviator sunglasses, a track suit, and gleaming white sneakers. The sort of cocky kid who in a few years will either be listening to or starring in hip-hop, soon to be born further uptown in the Bronx, he looks as if he already knows he’s the future.

The section in the book titled Small Camera Work (1980-85) reproduces some of Bey’s least-known work, and some of the most beautiful. This was a period when he was going into the street (not only in Harlem but in Puerto Rico and Mexico) and letting accidents of light provide the drama of a scene as it unfolded in front of him.

He rode the bus, looked into the windows of luncheonettes, watched people entering office buildings, and photographed their ambiguous gestures and unpredictable forms. His role models now seemed to include Roy DeCarava, Helen Levitt, Harry Callahan, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Bey presented people within an expansive world that was more indifferent and thus less nurturing than the one he had wanted to capture in 1970s Harlem.

Bey’s change in 1987 to a medium-format camera reflected a dissatisfaction with the furtiveness of street photography. He had grown wary about its inherent dishonesty and the potential abuse of power that the photographer can exercise over an unknowing subject. He wanted his photographs to reveal that everyone in them had agreed to be portrayed and, to the extent that such a thing is possible, for the moment to be a reciprocal exchange.

His black-and-white street portraits with Type 55 Polaroid film from the late ‘80s provide evidence of this social contract and are Bey’s most reproduced. He had seen the portraits of Mike Disfarmer at ICP in 1977, as well as those of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. (Penn’s Small Trades series, portraits of Parisian workers, left a particularly strong impression.)

Bey’s eye is softer and gentler than Avedon’s and he doesn’t care, as Penn does, what people do to earn a living. There is a probing egalitarianism to the portraits, as there is in Disfarmer’s. Bey is able to meet the gaze of women and men, the old and young and middle-aged, with a calm equanimity, without pretending that his 4×5 camera is scouring their souls. Most of the portraits here are half-length or three-quarters. The only close-up is A Girl with a Knife Nosepin, Brooklyn, 1990—the lovely cover image of the book. With her right eye, she seems to be accepting his crouching presence, while the left seems more suspicious. If there’s trouble, she’s ready for it because she’s seen some.

Bey’s 20×24 Polaroid portraits from the early 1990s are even more deliberate. Any illusion of stealth or subterfuge is impossible to maintain under circumstances in which the subject must sit in a special room and endure long exposures. He writes in an essay here that he had wanted to remove “the social signifier of place” and situate “the subjects in a neutral space where the entire narrative came to reside in their physical presence.”

He had by then moved into color, always naturalistic rather than highly keyed or Expressionistic. His multi-panel portraits are both an attempt to make bigger pictures and to chip away at the persistent idea of a single image defining a person—pressing concerns for many art photographers at the time.  The book provides copious evidence how he often succeeded in these sessions. A double-page spread of an Indian boy (Amishi, Chicago, 1993) and an African-American girl (Nashira, Atlanta, 1996) convey their shy, mercurial moods in a way that takes seriously the turbulent emotions of teenagers.

My least favorite series of Bey’s may be his most celebrated. The Birmingham Project (2012) was created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birming-ham, Alabama that killed four girls (three were 14, one was 11.) One of the most vicious acts of violence in the Civil Rights era—and one in which conviction of the murderers was both slow and uneven—it has inspired grief and outrage from numerous artists. John Coltrane’s composition Alabama (1964) and Spike Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls (1997) are only two of the most famous responses.

To memorialize these deaths, Bey decided to make a series of diptychs, pairing portraits of adults who are the age the girls would have been were they alive, with portraits of children who are the ages of the girls when they were killed. Photographed in black-and-white, they look directly into the camera, seated in wooden chairs and with their arms resting on the backs of church pews.

The formality of the poses is supported by professional lighting and the richly toned printing. The results are somber and touching. But for the same reason that portraits of Holocaust survivors are almost never wholly successful—the motive for taking the photograph overshadows anything that it might reveal about a face or personality—Bey’s series is unfair to the viewer, who is pushed into a corner and forced to sanction the grave nobility of what he’s done or else be judged morally defective.

In the last series in the book Harlem Redux (2014-17) he has returned to the neighborhood where he discovered himself as a photographer in the 1970s. The earlier series was black-and-white; this one is in color. He was in his early twenties when he began Harlem, U.S.A.; now he is in his sixties.

Because he is making a sentimental journey, the pictures have a wistful, nostalgic air. They’re also laced with humor and even a touch of sarcasm about cosmic karma. In the past, residents of Harlem had rightfully complained that other areas of the city were developed while they were neglected. Bey’s photographs demonstrate what can happen when you get what you wish for: overdevelopment and gentrification. Humans have been crowded out of the picture in his view of the streets, replaced by high-rise apartments and office towers.

The color orange runs throughout the series: the orange of safety netting around construction sites, Porta Potties, and plastic bollards—orange as the new black. Wispy, delicate skeins of light, first seen in his small-camera work, have also returned here, as though he were channeling Saul Leiter.

One senses in the series the liberation he must have felt in photographing again without a tripod. To eulogize the demise of the Lenox Lounge—a bar and nightclub that during its lifetime (1939-2012) was patronized by everyone of note in Harlem’s cultural life, from Billie Holiday to Malcolm X—Bey made two quite different photographs, neither like his Birmingham elegy.

In the first, from 2014, he stood on the sidewalk and shot the façade of the shuttered building, a temporal view interrupted by passersby seemingly unconcerned that the landmark has closed. When he returned, in 2016, he made a close-up (a two-page spread in the book) of the covering on the windows: wilting, sun-bleached sheets of brown paper, streaked with trails of water. It’s not like anything he had done before.

He seems pleased that the New York tradition of selling things on the sidewalk has not disappeared, even if three examples here—a rack of hats next to a café umbrella; four tiers of bottles containing essential oils; used coats and hats hanging from a chain link fence—suggest a wide gap of opportunities among the peddlers. He photographs a green tourist bus, not a sight he would have witnessed in 1975.

Seeing Deeply reveals Bey to be an unapologetic still photographer who has not ventured into multi-media or performance or gender politics or made himself the center of attention. Such artistic steadfastness and, if you will, conservatism comes with a price in today’s art world. Only after he turned 50 did his portraits bring him recognition outside small museums and academic institutions. He was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2002 and last year earned the coveted prize of a MacArthur Foundation grant.

Bey would perhaps agree with the novelist and essayist Albert Murray, who lived in Harlem for most of his adult life and had disdain for experimentation as an end in itself. An Air Force pilot before he was a writer, he was fond of saying that the “avant-garde” is a military term that describes troops who, cut off from their supply lines, eventually become the “Lost Patrol”.

The chronology at the back of Seeing Deeply, however, offers a tantalizing survey of Bey’s vast circle of associates or friends within New York’s artistic communities (Ana Mendieta, Kerry James Marshall, David Hammons, Carrie Mae Weems, Calvin Forbes, Terry Adkins, Louis Faurer, Parks, Michael Spano) that I wish were more fully developed in the essays. Who wouldn’t want to know exactly what Mendieta meant to him; or what DeCarava said to Bey in his critique of the young man’s work in 1975? Did Bey accept the older man’s advice or reject it? We don’t find out here.

Curators and critics have often gauged the achievement of African-American artists by how overtly their work expresses a protest against the historical ubiquity of white racism—a measurement that can be as wearying and pernicious for these artists to contend with as any subtle belittlement.

A simmering anger against his country’s treatment of people of color can be detected in Bey’s photographs—how could it not be for a man his age?—as it is in DeCarava’s photographs, Jacob Lawrence’s collages, Coltrane’s solos, and Jack Whitten’s sculptures.

But rage is not the force that animates Bey’s work. Rather, it’s his gratitude toward the people who have trusted him with their pictorial lives that is the far stronger emotion. His photography is inseparable from his audience and would be diminished without their approval and loyalty. If we hear the rhetoric of protest echoing in the nine chapters of this glorious book, it’s against those who would underestimate the control, skill, resilience and shared humanity necessary for someone to make art with a camera of the quality we’re holding.

Collector’s POV: Dawoud Bey is represented by Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago (here), Mary Boone Gallery in New York (here), and Rena Bransten Gallery in San Francisco (here). Bey’s work has little auction history in the past decade, with only a handful lots coming up for sale. As such, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

Francesca Woodman @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 59 photographic works, generally framed in beige wood and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. (Installation shots below.) ... Read on.

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