As a photographer, Dawoud Bey has been fascinated by Harlem, the New York neighborhood where his parents lived before he was born. After their move to Queens and Bey’s birth, they made frequent trips back to see friends and relatives, and Bey developed a spiritual connection to the area that brought him back long after the family visits had ceased. The 1969 Metropolitan Museum exhibition Harlem on My Mind drew a young and politically active Bey to visit—not because it was a photography show, though he had received his first camera two years earlier, but because of the controversy that was created by the catalogue and the media.1 He stayed and was enthralled by the photographs: “It gave me a sense of photography’s documentary power, its potential to be a repository of collective memory, a doorway into another experience.”2
Bey began photographing in Harlem in 1975, and was given a solo exhibition of his early work at Harlem’s Studio Museum in 1979. These photographs, and his subsequent work made in black urban neighborhoods throughout the Northeast, drew strongly from a classic 35mm documentary style rooted in the earlier street photographs of artists such as James Van Der Zee, Walker Evans, and Roy DeCarava.
By the mid-1980s, Bey sought more from his images and began to explore the relationship between the sitter and the photographer. He switched from a handheld 35mm to the larger 4-by-5-inch view camera. He hauled this cumbersome box, complete with its dark cloth and tripod, throughout neighborhoods he had photographed a decade earlier. His long-term presence in the community and his patience with the large-format camera helped to establish a trust between the artist and his subjects. The 1989 photograph A Young Woman Between Carrolburg Place and Half Street, Washington, D.C., exemplifies this period of Bey’s portraiture. Using Polaroid Positive/Negative Type 55 film, he was able to share the image with his subject immediately—giving the sitter a print while he retains the negative.
These startling images are hybrids. While not the voyeuristic street photographs that comfortably place the viewer in the role of passerby, they retain the grit of the street. Neither are they formal portraits like those found atop the television, piano, or sideboard in most family homes. Rather, they are arresting portraits of people who are fixtures in their neighborhoods, unfamiliar to much of the art-viewing public. Bey doesn’t flinch from the bleak backgrounds and hard stares of his subjects. He allows the sitter an equal role in the making of the image, and in that instant when the shutter opens, we can sense this connection being made. Bey explains, “I wanted the subjects in those photographs to be possessed of the power to look, to assert oneself, to meet the gaze of the viewer. Having had so much taken from them, I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see, and to be seen.”3
Though Bey was seasoned as a portrait photographer on the street, his move into studio photography in 1991—complete with lights, colored-paper backdrops, and the Polaroid 20-by-24-inch view camera—was a shift that allowed the artist to explore the connecting power of the gaze even further. Gone was the context of the street that linked these earlier images to the documentary tradition. Now Bey was faced with the studio and the technology to create luscious large-format images, which he often assembled using multiple panels to invoke an underlying relationship between sitters. Brian and Paul depicts a pair of students from Columbia College in Chicago, where Bey was in residence for eight weeks in 1993. While their physical relationship is suggested by the hand that crosses from one image to the next, their attention is shared not with each other but with the world at large. The slightly larger-than-life scale of the images, the starkness of the setting, and the richness of the palette serve to create a formal portrait of youth culture that is at once individual and culturally familiar. Bey embraces color the same way he embraced the structure of the street’s architecture—as a means to provide a context for the sitter. However, he has also said that his work of this period is rooted in the formal portraiture of Old Master painters Raphael and Franz Hals,4 and here he revels in the rich textures and colors of each subject’s clothing, jewelry, hair, and skin because the sitters themselves use these elements to establish their identity.
The exhibition was controversial on many fronts—from the curator’s use of audiovisual multimedia to accusations that it was too radical in one sense and too patronizing in another. Bey recalls, “The issue of anti-Semitism was raised in response to an essay by a young black woman which appeared in the catalogue, and this controversy found its way into the media. Reading and hearing about it made me want to go see what the fuss was all about.” Dawoud Bey quoted in Jock Reynolds, “An Interview with Dawoud Bey,” in Kellie Jones, ed., Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975–1995, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 102. ↩
Ibid., 107. ↩
Artist’s statement, April 25, 1994 (Walker Art Center Archives). ↩