With concurrent solo exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, this summer offers a comprehensive look at 30 years of Dawoud Bey’s photographic work in one city. “Harlem, U.S.A.,” on view in Gallery 189 at the Art Institute, contains 25 black-and-white photographs completed while Bey was an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem in the late 1970s. The Renaissance Society’s survey exhibition includes over 30 years of work, culminating in his most recent series, “Strangers/Community,” portraits of residents of Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood.
Bey is renowned for the warmth and intensity of his subjects, predominantly teenagers from the New York and Chicago areas. Working in black and white and color, film and digital photography, Bey explores the history and future of portraiture. The prints in “Harlem, U.S.A.,” for example, combine the composition and clarity of a skilled professional with the thoughtful consideration of a young artist. Over the years, Bey has been called upon to capture the likes of artists, dignitaries and, recently, Barack Obama.
Bey moved to Obama’s adopted hometown almost 15 years ago to join the faculty at Columbia College. He’s subsequently participated in the creative community as not only an artist but as an advocate for photography and a supporter of numerous artists and organizations.
LISA DENT When did the Art Institute of Chicago first approach you about exhibiting “Harlem, U.S.A.?”
DAWOUD BEY The Art Institute approached me about a year and a half ago about acquiring the vintage set of “Harlem, U.S.A.” photographs that I’ve had for over 30 years. A year after the exhibition of those works at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979, I showed a group of them at the International Center of Photography, but hadn’t shown them much—if at all—since that time. In 2005 I published a limited-edition portfolio that included 10 carbon pigment prints from the larger body of work and the Art Institute of Chicago acquired one of the portfolios. When Matthew Witkovsky became the head of the photography department there two years ago, he approached me to ask if there were any silver prints available from the project. The only silver prints I had were the vintage ones from my own collection, so to speak.
The acquisition was spearheaded by the the Institute’s African American support group, the Leadership Advisory Committee. The LAC was deeply invested in having the work at the institution, and took on the challenge to raise the funds for the acquisition. It was the first time the LAC has played such a direct and dynamic role within the institution, having previously limited their activities to programming.
DENT What was your first impression, seeing them all together again in the gallery after so many years?
BEY Seeing the photographs all together on the wall again mostly reminded me how young I was when I made those photographs. I was 21 or 22 years old when I started making those pictures. It also reminded me that these were the photographs with which I began to successfully figure out the relationship between artistic intent and how to make something that matches the level of that intent. I initially learned to make photographs by photographing in the streets of Harlem every day, making those pictures.
DENT Did you have personal relationships with any of those people before you photographed them? Or did you just stop interesting people and ask them to pose?
BEY I didn’t know any of the people in the Harlem photographs before photographing them. They were all people I met informally in the course of walking the streets. The same is true for the people in the black-and-white street portrait photographs, which I started making in 1988. I meet my subjects through the act of photographing them.
DENT is the way you photographed your subjects in the 1970s different from the way you approach them now?
BEY The photographs are similar in that they attempt to create a momentarily sustained engagement with ordinary people, and attempt to invest their lives visually with an enhanced degree of psychological presence as well as formal and material description. When I began photographing in Harlem I was using a small 35mm camera. The works I made after that were all made with a large-format 4×5 camera, and in the late 1980s though 1990 with the large 20×24 Polaroid View Camera. The larger cameras created a more sustained situation between me and the people I was photographing, and resulted in a very different kind of photograph, one that was richer and more full of material information. Using the large camera on a tripod also made for a much more collaborative and staged process. All of those things were important to me, and were the reasons I stopped making pictures with the small camera.
There was a shift in the discourse around photography and photographic representation in the 1980s, and I wanted to see if I could chart a path for myself that both made use of photography’s documentary tradition and addressed the question of the tension between fact and fiction, staged and spontaneous that was taking place at that time.
DENT What were you hoping to achieve with “Strangers/Community?”
BEY “Strangers/Community” is about visualizing the complex thing that is community. I wanted to do that by bringing together two people from a given community who did not know each other, and having them sit together within a particular space within that community to jointly present themselves to the camera, and by extension to the larger world. The work is about bringing people together who would not have come together otherwise, and to have them negotiate their joint presentation. In making the work I am moving people out of the socially prescribed spaces that they might inhabit and placing them in a new momentary relationship. Taken as a whole I want the project to represent just how complex community really is, though it tends to be spoken of in a very singular, one-dimensional and often rhetorical way.
DENT It is fascinating the way two people who had never met before seemed to mirror each other’s gestures so quickly. Did any of them notice your sense of composition, or did you discuss the making of a photograph with them?
BEY Part of the process of making the work is for the two people who have never met to figure out how to present themselves to the camera. They have to figure this out individually, and yet they are seated or standing quite close to one another . . . enough so that one person may end up mimicking the pose of the other. I tried not to give them too much direction because I wanted them to be comfortable, and in order for them to be comfortable the gestural behavior has to be theirs. It became a sort of momentary bonding with another human being, and channeling that person’s behavior, often in a very uncanny kind of way.
DENT Tell me about the teenagers in your “The Character Project” photographs from 2009. Were they your students? How did you meet them?
BEY “The Character Project” work was commissioned by USA Network. They asked several photographers to make photographs of “American characters” in different parts of the country. I decided to photograph young people in Chicago; to make a group of photographs of diverse young Chicagoans that also reflected who the country was at that particular moment. I set up a “studio of the street” on Michigan Avenue, using the painted side of a construction shed as my studio. I photographed there every day for about a month, stopping young people in an area that was close to a number of academic institutions, including Columbia College Chicago, where I am on the faculty, as well as Roosevelt and DePaul Universities.
The majority of students ended up being from Columbia. The engagements were relatively brief, perhaps 15 to 20 minutes, and the challenge was to get the person to be comfortable enough in front of the camera, within that short time span, in order for their gestural and behavioral idiosyncrasy to emerge in a way that was interesting. The work referenced Avedon’s “American West” portraits, made against a plain white background in various locations in the West, as well as Irving Penn’s “Worlds in A Small Room” project, where he took a portable studio into different regions of the world to make “authentic” portraits of his subjects in the environment of the studio. These photographs were about maintaining a credible sense of authentic identity within the fictive space of the studio.
DENT The photographs in “Harlem, U.S.A.” were all printed in black and white at a relatively small size, but you later moved to using color and working in a larger scale. Were you hesitant to work in color? What made you decide to do so?
BEY It was a desire to move away from a certain tradition of making pictures that led me away from black and white to color. Black and white has long implied a certain kind of documentary impulse. I also wanted to bring different, more specific and heightened material information into the work that black and white didn’t allow me to do. I started working in color for the first time in 1991 when I started working with the 20×24 Polaroid View Camera. My work with that camera was initially influenced by historical paintings, including an interest in Rembrandt’s work that goes back to grade school. I worked exclusively with the 20×24 camera from 1991 through 1998, and when I started using the 4×5 camera again I continued working in color.
DENT Every photographer I know seems to struggle with decisions about framing at some point in their career. It has such an impact on the work. Had you ever considered flush mounting to Plexiglas, like Louise Lawler, or frames with significant profiles, like Kehinde Wiley?
BEY There are so many ways that work can be presented now that it can really be a challenge. I always thought the flush mounted photographs under or over Plexiglas looked too mechanical, like the work was made by a sleek machine of some kind. It was too cold for me, so I never thought to present my work that way. Kehinde’s ornate framing is appropriate for the conversation with history and grand historical painting that he is engaged with. I am very much interested in the photograph as a made object, as an image that sits on paper, and is made by a particular process. That’s why I have left the processed film edges on the 20×24 Polaroid works and also the edges around the photographs in the black and white Street Portrait work that was made using 4×5 Polaroid positive/negative film. I want to allude in the finished object to the way in which the work is made. And those lavish frames Kehinde uses would be way too over the top for my work! While I am very much interested in giving the subjects of my work a heightened physical presence, I’m fine with a more subtle and understated presentation. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool modernist with a social conscience; I don’t like the frame to get in the way of the object, since I believe that it is the object that really has to drive the narrative of the work.
DENT You have been a teacher and mentor to many young photographers. What’s the role of teaching in your work?
BEY Over the years I’ve taught at a wide range of institutions, from community-based institutions like the Studio Museum in Harlem to colleges and universities, including Kenyon College, Rutgers University, and Columbia College Chicago, where I have been on the faculty for 14 years. I’ve been a visiting artist at countless others, Yale and MassArt among them. In the best cases you are able to empower students to find their own voice, and to approach their work with a degree of rigor and principle. Teaching also keeps me engaged in a conversation with young artists who are coming of age in an art world and visual culture very different from how I came up. I try to learn from their fluidity with visual media even as I try to give them a solid grounding, commitment and investment in the subject of their work, whatever it may be.
DENT You and my sister have a similar talent: holding a camera and extending your arm as far as you can to take a picture of yourself with close friends. These images seem like testaments to your passion for taking photographs and to your desire to connect with as many friends and colleagues as you can wherever you are. Have you ever considered exhibiting those photographs?
BEY My “self portraits with friends” are pictures that I make to mark my time together with people that I care about. They allow me to continue to make pictures when I’m not making “work,” and also to have a visual record of my community, the people I spend time with and value. I don’t think I’ll publish them, though “publishing” them on social media might well be a contemporary form of publication. They’ve obviously been “published” in that sense enough for you to have seen them!