Artists Dawoud Bey
Date 29.04.2023 - 30.06.2023
Venue Sean Kelly, Los Angeles
All images Courtesy by Sean Kelly. Photo: Brica Wilcox
Bey first came to attention with Harlem, U.S.A. (1975-1979) a visual journey through the iconic neighborhood, which, in 1979, was the subject of his first solo exhibition at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Since then, Bey’s photographic and social practice—he is highly regarded as an educator as well as a photographer—has been defined by the empathy he brings to his subjects and the complexity with which he depicts them. In succeeding decades and successive bodies of work, Bey has moved from working “in the streets” with a small, hand-held 35mm camera to creating more formally structured portraits using a 4 x 5 camera and the monumental 20 x 24 Polaroid view camera.
The exhibition opens with early photographs from, Harlem, U.S.A. which Bey began photographing at the age of twenty-two. Inspired to capture residents of the neighborhood due to Harlem’s status as a symbol of, and wellspring, for Black American culture, Bey portrayed its citizens as complex individuals free of stereotypes. The use of a small 35mm camera, with a slightly wide-angle lens, gave him the flexibility and spontaneity to get close to his subjects while grounding them in the cityscape behind them.
In the next series featured in the exhibition, ‘Street Portraits’, begun in 1988, Bey decided to slow down his process, moving to a larger format camera, which engendered a reciprocal exchange with his sitters. Like other photographers working at that time, Bey was increasingly concerned with the ethics of traditional street photography, “which privileged the photographer at the expense of the subject.” Bey approached individuals he wished to photograph to give “the Black subjects [a space] to assert themselves and their presence in the world, with their gaze meeting the viewers on equal footing,” thus developing a different tradition of picture making that weds the subject to their environment, to create a “studio of the streets.”
‘Harlem Redux’ represents the moment when Bey made the critical decision to shift away from portraiture to conceptually based photography. In 2014, 40 years after Harlem, U.S.A., Bey returned to the iconic neighborhood to create a series of photographs which visualized the profound socioeconomic forces changing the landscape of this epicenter of Black community and culture. This series, in color, records how in Bey’s words, this community is “increasingly defined by a sense of ‘erase and replace,’ wherein pieces of social and cultural history, along with memory itself, are routinely discarded.”
With Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, Bey turned to landscape photography for the first time in his career, removing the presence of the figure entirely. This series imagines the flight of enslaved Black Americans along the route of the Underground Railroad that operated in Ohio—the final fifty miles before reaching the vast expanse of Lake Erie, on the other side of which lay Canada, and freedom. His most recent series, In This Here Place, created in 2019, is the third project in Bey’s ongoing history series which chronicles the history of Black Americans in the United States. This body of work focuses on plantations in Louisiana, continuing the artist’s examination of African American history and his efforts to make the Black past resonate in the contemporary moment.