A shared understanding: Dawoud Bey’s Street Portraits

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Street Portraits, published by MACK, collates images created by Bey between 1988 and 1991, capturing the individuality and complexity of Black American life

For too long, monolithic archetypes have characterised the Black experience. The USis a country composed of states with distinct climates, cultures, and states of being. To understand Black life across the nation through a singular lens would be reductive, erasing the diversity of cultures present across the United States. In Street Portraits, Dawoud Bey is on the hunt for this diversity. He is on a mission to demonstrate the multiplicity of Black life, attempting to showcase the beauty, reality, and many faces of Black America. 

Between 1988 and 1991, Bey travelled the length of the US, capturing street portraits of African-Americans. Employing a wholly original camera technique, Bey combined large format film photography with Polaroids. The reusable negative remained with him, while the polaroid was given to the subject. Through this transaction, the subject became a collaborator, taking part in the process.

Published by MACK with an essay by the American writer Greg Tate, Street Portraits compiles frames ofthe mutual Black gaze. At a time when such explorations were rare in photography, Bey created a relationship between sitter and photographer; a relationship built on a mutual understanding and community. Through this gaze, the images achieve something beyond representation, and find a contemplative peace through the shared exercise of Black life. 

Street photography has a reputation for spontaneity, candidness, even voyeurism. By slowing down the process and communicating with the subject, Bey brings the atmosphere of a studio to his street portraits. Each face is original, each image a unique story. Through the pages, Black lives are lived, determined by the beholder. There is an agency, a stillness, and an understanding. 

Street Portraits is published by MACK and available to purchase here.

Isaac Huxtable

Isaac Huxtable joined the British Journal of Photography in October 2020, where he is currently the Editorial Assistant. Prior to this, he studied a BA in History of Art at the Courtauld Instititue of Art, London.