Looking back: Dawoud Bey engages history

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

In his first retrospective in 25 years, Dawoud Bey engages with African American history: reimaging and visualising aspects of a persecuted past that extends to the present

Born in 1953 in Queens, New York, Dawoud Bey’s career has spanned five decades, securing his place as a well-respected photographer, one able to connect to the communities he investigates. Now he has his first retrospective in 25 years. Titled An American Project, the exhibition runs until 03 October 2021 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and is co-organised with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It arrives during a monumentally tragic time for many worldwide. Recognising this helps underscore some of Bey’s motives while raising questions about how we bear witness in a world that Bey has been studying for some time.

The show invites viewers to observe the expansive vision of Bey’s work over different periods, organised by theme and chronologically, from 1975 to 2017. He began photography as a teenager, inspired by iconic photographer James Van Der Zee, and soon made a name for himself with his own portraiture. In his first series, Harlem, USA (1979), Bey chronicled Harlem’s residents with a small 35mm camera and a wide-angle lens. The neighbourhood would go on to change and, 40 years later, Bey noted the transformations and displacement inflicted by gentrification in another project, Harlem Redux (2014-2017). In many ways, the process of return and reinvention is indicative of Bey’s overarching methodology.

Two girls from a marching band, Harlem. NY. 1990 © Dawoud Bey and courtesy of the artist, Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery.

Bey often focuses on the inescapable complications of an unsettled past and how they affect the present. He is outspoken about engaging his subjects ethically and as collaborators. When I ask about his motivations, Bey describes his practice as “history-based work”. He points to two more recent projects, on show at the Whitney, which exemplify this when I inquire about what sets this latest exhibition apart: “An American Project is my third retrospective exhibition,” he reflects. “Each one has added to the ideas and subjects I have been working through since the last one. An American Project contains two of my most recent projects, The Birmingham Project and Night Coming Tenderly, Black. The first two [iterations] of what has become an ongoing history project that visualises and reimagines aspects of African American history,” as Bey explains it.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black sees Bey step beyond the human subject to landscapes around a section of the Underground Railroad, which ran through northeastern Ohio. The photographer sought to reimagine and depict the travails of enslaved Africans escaping from bondage, employing topography and buildings that could have offered shelter and protection on their journey to freedom. The Birmingham Project provides messaging through portraiture. The portraits commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church by white supremacists in Birmingham, Alabama. Bey created diptychs of children the age of the four girls killed in the bombing and the two boys who were also killed in its violent aftermath, alongside adults the ages they would have been if they had lived. 

Dawoud Bey, Don Sledge and Moses Austin. Birmingham, AL. 2012 © Dawoud Bey.
Betty Selvage and Faith Speights, Birmingham, AL. 2012 © Dawoud Bey.
Mathis Menefee and Cassandra Griffin. Birmingham, AL. 2012 © Dawoud Bey.

The work poses challenges regarding depiction and representation. In an interview with The University of Texas Press, Bey said of the bombing victims that he sought to “make them real”, and both these later works deal with the idea of resurrection. One question that they raise is: what does it mean to resurrect a life widely known through death? It’s a question that artists, institutions and activists struggle with when it comes to Birmingham and the many other historic locations known for violence. Indeed, it may be hard to interpret the language of history without repackaging violence through words and images that are foreign to those who were not there. So translations risk becoming assumptions, miscommunicating history’s message. Bey does not seem intimidated by this. 

The late Maurice Berger wrote that Bey transforms the “epochal story into a flesh and blood reality…through images of contemporary Americans who are no different from us”. Sometimes audiences may feel they have to see it to believe it. But it depends on who is looking because the violence many have yet to escape is still a lived reality. I wondered about Bey’s approach and care when photographing vulnerable subjects, and asked him about this. He told me, “Because certain kinds of photographs more closely resemble reality, they tend to have more credibility. I consider myself to be a humanist, someone who is trying to provoke the human community into a conversation with itself.” 

For the underrepresented, Bey says, “I make my work as a way of reshaping the experience of the world; to look at it and engage with it on my terms and reframe whatever the dominant narrative might be”. As Bey continues his work chronicling Black people’s lives, we should hope one day the people he has highlighted for others will see true freedom themselves. 

Hilary and Taro, 1992. © Dawoud Bey.

An American Project is on show at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, from 17 April until 03 October 2021.
Street Portraits by Dawoud Bey is published by Mack.

William C Anderson

William C. Anderson is a writer and activist from Birmingham, Alabama. His work has appeared in the Guardian, MTV, Truthout, and Pitchfork, among others. He is the co-author of the book As Black as Resistance (AK Press. 2018) and his writings have been included in the anthologies, Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect? (Haymarket, 2016) and No Selves to Defend. His forthcoming book The Nation On No Map will be published in 2021 by AK Press.