Through the Eyes of Dawoud Bey

From Harlem to Birmingham, the acclaimed photographer focuses his lens on the process — of both social history and photography.

I MET DAWOUD BEY in the early 1990s, when he and I were both graduate students in the somewhat infamous Yale School of Art photography program under then-director Tod Papageorge, who was known for, among other things, his eloquent lectures and critiques that drew blood. Once, after a particularly brutal critique of mine, I saw Bey in the hallway (I have memories of sucking on a cigarette, trying my best not to cry). With a stern but encouraging voice, he told me, “You know you’re not your work.” I had no idea what he meant. But I took note because I knew he knew something I didn’t. He was already a seasoned and established photographer at that point, whose “Harlem, U.S.A.” portraits — made in the late ’70s and ’80s — had debuted at The Studio Museum in Harlem and the International Center of Photography. Originally aspiring to be a classic street photographer, Bey initially photographed subjects furtively and quickly with a small camera. Gradually, he shifted his approach, employing a larger view camera on a tripod that facilitated a more consensual, more direct, more participatory way of working.

Bey’s later work — exhibited at renowned venues ranging from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museum of Modern Art to the Guggenheim Museum and the Tate Modern — includes “The Birmingham Project” (2012), “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” (2017), and “In This Here Place” (2019). In each series, Bey’s subject was history, but he wasn’t interested in nostalgia. “The Birmingham Project” is about the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and ensuing racist assaults. The images are shown in diptychs: a portrait of a young person, the same age as one of the victims of the violence, paired with a portrait of someone the age they would have been if they had survived — a jarring juxtaposition that conveys both deep loss and the passage of time. In “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” (a line from the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations”), Bey reimagines locations along the Underground Railroad in Ohio. The landscapes aren’t meant to be actual representations of historical sites but to embody a sense of emotional trauma.


Bey laughs a lot when I tell him I’ve thought about his comment, “You are not your work,” for many years. And that I finally have an idea of what he meant. “Maybe you were trying to tell me that making work is not an exercise in ego,” I say to him. “It’s a long process, a practice. And critical distance is essential for growth as an artist.” He nods and expands on this idea: “People ask me, ‘What did you feel when you were on the plantation? Was that difficult?’ But all the emotion happens to me before I get there. I understand the horror of the history; it’s what compels me to be there. But once I’m there, I’m making photographs. I have to be able to see clearly to do that. It’s not an emotional process. It’s a very intentional picture-making process of how I want to describe and define this place through the camera.”

There is some misconception that Bey’s work is solely about African American subjects and history. He offers a corrective: “People may think about the work within a very narrow conversation about Blackness,” he says. “But it’s Blackness attached to a larger conversation about the whole history of photography, and it’s my knowledge of that history and of wide-ranging picture-making strategies that allow me to move fluidly to making my work.”

And Bey has emerged as one of the leading voices in contemporary photography. In 2023, he will open a series of exhibitions, including “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Weems: In Dialogue” at the Getty Center and “Dawoud Bey: Photographs” at Sean Kelly Gallery in Los Angeles.

Our Contributors

Alexandra Brodsky Photographer

Alex Brodsky is a photographer and filmmaker whose films have screened at venues such as New Directors/New Films, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the Nantucket Film Festival, among others. Her film "Bittersweet Place" premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, garnering a special jury commendation. She is a founding partner, along with Mary Stuart Masterson and Cassandra Del Viscio, of Quality Pictures, a production company dedicated to social impact, located in the Hudson Valley.

Dawoud Bey Photographer

MacArthur Fellow Dawoud Bey has been a groundbreaking American artist for decades, making evocative work about communities that are often marginalized and mining the histories of those Black communities and their people. He began his career as a photographer in 1975 with the series "Harlem, USA," and his work has since been the subject of numerous exhibitions and retrospectives at museums and galleries worldwide. A forthcoming publication, "Elegy," will bring together Bey's history projects and landscape-based work and will accompany an exhibition in 2023 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


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