by Derek Conrad Murray
American photographer, Dawoud Bey’s current retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is an impressive and beautifully installed survey of the artist’s iconic works. SFMOMA’s Dawoud Bey: An American Project coincides with a concurrent exhibition at the Rena Bransten Gallery, which surveys four canonical photographic series: Harlem, U.S.A, Black-and-White Type 55 Polaroid Street Portraits, The Birmingham Project and Night Coming Tenderly, Black. These interlocking exhibits create a powerful commentary on the enduring power of the photographic medium, particularly its ability to both invoke the past, and shape the future.
Born in 1953, Bey has consistently chronicled the African-American experience, documenting his subject with beauty, grace and dignity. It is often remarked that Bey’s subjects are the underrepresented and the devalued, communities that have not traditionally been valued within the great Western museums. For that reason, I was struck by SFMOMA’s promotional materials proclaiming that Dawoud Bey: An American Project, was an effort to “Honor the power of the black subject.” There seems to be a contradiction between the exhibition’s title, which situates Bey’s contribution as authentically American, and its institutional positioning as a gesture towards recovery and acknowledgment. Within this contradiction is a tension between erasure and recognition: between the historical disavowal of African-American life as proper to
Americanness—and the often-fraught institutional politics of recuperation. Dawoud Bey’s photography is, above all things, profoundly American, but the artist is also outspoken about the need to place the black subject at the representational center. Yet I would argue that no resuscitation is needed. Moreover, the strength and beauty of his images convey a deeply American spirit, embodied in the resplendence of its citizens. On the other hand, Dawoud Bey: An American Project is the artist’s first major retrospective exhibition in 25 years—so there is a need to reflect on the artist’s unique contribution to the photographic medium.
The exhibition, co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, features roughly 80 major works created from the 1970s to the present. One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition’s conceptualization is its thematic and chronological approach. It moves seamlessly between various series, while exploring the evolving conceptual sophistication of the artist’s process. One of the highlights of the exhibition is the inclusion of Bey’s early street photography series entitled Harlem, U.S.A. (1975-78). Bey grew up in Queens, but his family had roots in the historic neighborhood of Harlem. The series has a palpable sensitivity and a devotion towards his subjects. Three Women at a Harlem Parade, Harlem NY (1978), for example, depicts a trio of elderly black women leaning against a traffic barricade while enjoying a parade. In many respects, this banal moment could be captured in any American city in the present, but it’s the elderly subjects that lend the image a specific gravitas. Clad in their best church outfits, the women exude a sense of dignity and knowing as they preside over the neighborhood festivities. An earlier image from the same series, Boy in Front of the Loews 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem NY (1976), depicts a dapper youth in a tracksuit, sneakers and sunglasses posing in front of a movie theater. Like Three Women, he leans casually against a traffic barricade. This image feels more like a classic portrait, due to the subject’s knowing gaze and the slight smile he directs toward the camera. While in their form and content, both photographs are snapshots of the past, they also speak very much to the present in that they evoke not just Harlem, but many predominantly black communities throughout the U.S. In these photographs, there is nothing distinctly dated about them, which is quite extraordinary considering when they were produced. But it’s also impossible not to consider present-day tensions around extrajudicial police violence, and the uprisings that have sprung up in response to these expressions of continued racial animus. In fact, the barricades—despite their seemingly innocuous presence in Bey’s Harlem series—eerily convey a sense of containment and the violence of social authority. But these barriers (as symbols for societal ordering and social control) also recall the very contemporaneous threat of gentrification that bears
upon some of the most historic black communities in the U.S.: a threat that exacerbates the sense that for blacks folks at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, the realities of home and community are often at the whims of external forces. I was struck by the expressions of jubilance, the sense of ease, and play, and the joys of family that permeate the Harlem series: moments that are informed by present antagonisms with historical roots. In short, this is photography in its most powerful and transcendent form.
Among Bey’s more acclaimed bodies of work is The Birmingham Project (2012), a conceptual portrait series that diverts from his street photography and more classic portraiture. Commissioned by the Birmingham Museum of Art, it memorializes the victims of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in that Alabama city. For this series, Bey created portraits in diptych of boys and girls who were the same ages as the victims of the bombings—juxtaposed with contrasting portraits of adults at the ages the deceased children would have been in 2012, had they survived. The pictures deftly bridge the gap between the historical past and an embattled present. Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, AL (2012), depicts an elderly African-American woman sitting in the pews of a church. With her close-cropped and graying afro, chic glasses and decorative scarf, Parker (at the left), directs her gaze squarely at the viewer. Her piercing gaze exudes strength, but also a sense of warmth, knowingness and dignity. At the right, a young black girl sits in what appears to be the same church, her arms resting on top of the pews. In contrast to the elderly woman to her left, the girl directs a stern gaze back at the viewer, suggesting that she fully understands the symbolic meaning of her visage. The combined weight of these cross-generational gazes makes disengaged viewing impossible.
Bey’s well-received studio portraits, taken with a 20 x 24-inch Polaroid camera, operate similarly. The large format has become synonymous with the work of many noted photographers and artists, including Chuck Close, Lyle Ashton Harris and David Leventhal. Bey’s use of the format is equally striking and aesthetically overpowering. These photos, of friends and teenagers he met during a residency at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Mass., challenge notions of value. The classic studio portrait always makes a compelling case for the value of the sitter—and Bey’s photographs give his black subjects a sense of agency over their own representation and a powerful means for self-definition. In this regard, his pictures evoke a range of influences, from Roy DeCarava and James Van Der Zee to Gordon Parks: photographers whose work similarly exudes a strong sense of social engagement and cultural memory. Bey’s studio portraits, with their intensely saturated colors and aesthetic rawness, reveal their subjects with a brutal clarity that is almost overwhelming in their emotionality. This comes across most strongly in his portraits of black women, whose beauty has rarely been conveyed with such richness and depth. A splendid example is Alva, New York, NY (1992), a diptych of a young woman. In one image, she stares downward in a contemplative manner. Her expression isn’t exactly melancholic, but pensive and thoughtful. In the other, she stares directly at the viewer. The beautiful brown tonalities of her skin and the thickness of her hair are stunning.
The retrospective also includes a more recent series of conceptual photographs titled Night Coming Tenderly, Black, created for the 2018 Front Triennial in Cleveland, Ohio. Shot in Ohio, the series depicts various locations where the Underground Railroad operated. Photographed during the day and then printed in crepuscular shades of black and gray (as if shot at dusk or dawn), the images elicit unease: a sense of impending and immediate peril, which in turn conjures an array of nasty associations. Needless to
say, these sensations convey the fear of existing in the shadows amidst the threat of violence. These works are an aesthetic departure for the photographer, yet conceptually and narratively, they are in direct critical dialogue with his earlier work. Bey always bridges the gap between past and present in a way that reanimates history. The black experience —whether depicted as a meditation on violence (as in Night Coming Tenderly, Black) or as portraiture — ultimately challenges the histories, institutions and representational regimes that willfully devalue people of color. But that is not where our focus should be.
Perhaps the aim should not be to honor the black subject, but rather to expand our understanding of who can be an American: that we should honor the American subject in its diversity. I belabor this point because the exhibition’s framing (even despite its acknowledgment of the photographer’s intent) sets a tone that overdetermines the black experience as embattled and peripheral, yet ultimately worthy of our recognition. But there is nothing peripheral in Bey’s photography, nothing that needs recovery. His subjects are a reflection of us (they are us)—and so we may need to expand our thinking beyond the clichés of identity and difference that always manage to view blackness through the troubling lens of ennobled suffering. This isn’t a critique of the institution, exhibition or the artist, but rather a reflection upon an ideological impasse between the rhetoric of recuperation, versus the need to reject the social role of blackness as locked in a permanent condition of irrecoverable marginality. That is to say, this is a symptom of a larger cultural problem. These are scripts that must be abandoned, if we are to view African-Americans not as the underrepresented or the vulnerable (markers that ultimately serve the purpose of re-substantiating black alterity), but as central to the ever-evolving American story.
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About the author:
Derek Conrad Murray, PhD, is an interdisciplinary theorist specializing in the history, theory, and criticism of contemporary art and visual culture. Murray works in contemporary aesthetic and cultural theory with particular attention to technocultural engagements with identity and representation. He is currently Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He is the author of Queering Post-Black Art: Artists Transforming African-American Identity After Civil Rights (2016) and the forthcoming book Mapplethorpe and the Flower: Radical Sexuality and the Limits of Control (2020).