Dawoud Bey: 40 Years of Photos Affirming the ‘Lives of Ordinary Black People’

A new retrospective book “Seeing Deeply” reveals his decades-long exploration of community, memory and photography.

Mark and Eric, Chicago, 1994. From the “20 x 24 Polaroid Works” series.CreditCreditDawoud Bey/University of Texas Press

By Fayemi Shakur

As a socially conscious teenager, Dawoud Bey was intrigued by the controversy over the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition, “Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968.” The show featured photos, audio and text about daily life in Harlem. It did not, however, include paintings, drawings or sculptures by African-American artists, which sparked protests organized by the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition. Mr. Bey, then 16, went on his own to the museum, hoping to see the picket lines and find out more, but when he arrived there were none that day.

A sense of fate drew him inside.

He was immediately struck by James Van Der Zee’s photographs of Harlem residents. As he walked through the show, seeing the work of African-American photographers in a museum profoundly affected Mr. Bey’s ambitions and what he thought could be possible for himself. Just the year before, his godmother had given him his first camera.

The Woman in the Light, Harlem, New York City, 1980. From the “Small Camera Work” series.CreditDawoud Bey/University of Texas Press
Four Children at Lenox Avenue, Harlem, New York City, 1977. From the “Harlem, U.S.A.” series.CreditDawoud Bey/University of Texas Press
Men From the 369th Regiment Marching Band, Harlem, New York City, 1977. From the “Harlem, U.S.A.” series.CreditDawoud Bey/University of Texas Press

Thus began his education in photography, influenced by the works of artists like Charles White, Romare Bearden and Emory Douglas, the minister of culture for the Black Panther Party whose graphic art appeared in the organization’s newspaper. Mr. Bey’s touchstones in photography included Roy DeCarava, Walker Evans and Gordon Parks, and even his own family’s photo albums. These explorations gave him a sense of what his own subject matter could be, leading to his first series, “Harlem, U.S.A.,” which he spent five years making and was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.

“I wanted to make photographs that affirmed the lives of ordinary black people in the community that my mother and father had previously lived in,” said Mr. Bey, a longtime professor at Columbia College Chicago who was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2017. “From the time I spent visiting family, friends and relatives there when I was growing up, I knew that with the exception of DeCarava’s work, the people of Harlem were often viewed through photographs in terms of social pathology. I wanted to contest the history of those kinds of black representations and also amplify through my photographs the lives of people like my family who still lived there and were making a way.”

An impressive 40-year retrospective of his work is now showcased in a 400-page book, “Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply,” published by the University of Texas Press. Essays by leading curators and critics introduce each section and show the many ways Mr. Bey places value on the full exploration of the medium of photography, agency, representation, community and memory juxtaposed with loss.

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