Images of Dawoud Bey at the Whitney Museum delve into the American past

Before becoming a photographer, Dawoud Bey trained as a jazz percussionist, turning to John Coltrane as a model to merge craftsmanship with a commitment to social justice. As a teenager in the 1960s, Bey was perfectly in tune with the social and political upheavals of the civil rights movement, organizing sit-ins and protests with his high school mates and joining the Black Panther Party, whose newspaper he sold on weekends. -end. In 1968, the struggle for racial equality converged with protests against the Vietnam War and the early stages of women’s liberation, forming a model of transformation and upheaval which culminated in the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr.

That year Bey inherited a camera from her godfather and soon began to study the history and techniques of the medium, leaning over images of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava and learning how to print and develop films of a black photographer in his neighborhood of Queens. Bey recognized that while an image may appear to be a static recording, by looking intently and with intention, a photographer could illuminate more than what was visible in the frame and point viewers to stories hidden beneath the surface. “The present never completely replaces the past,” noted the artist in an interview with Aperture last December. “History does not implode, it develops.”

“An American Project,” a retrospective investigation at the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows the 68-year-old artist’s nuanced understanding of the story as both subjective and dynamic. Under Bey’s watchful eye, the story emerges as an active presence, created in real time by individuals and societies transforming and being transformed by the continuous unfolding of the past.

Spanning two floors and nearly five decades of work, the exhibition distinguishes Bey within the canon of American photography as an artist whose adaptations to technical changes in his profession have not come at the expense of his ethical commitment to portray the black life in all its richness. and complexity.

From scenes in the early 1970s shot with a 35mm camera to portraits in the 1980s and 1990s developed with a 4 x 5 tripod mounted camera, Bey attempted to erase her own presence as a photographer, slowing down her process. and allowing its subjects to take charge. Taken on a larger scale, these photographs, like a tightly cropped image of a golden young man on a bicycle, not only demonstrate Bey’s ability to enhance the interiority of his subjects with close attention to detail, but also to raise awareness. viewers to the fact that they, like Bey, share a space with another person. He continued this practice in studio portraits of his friends, multipanel color Polaroids that depict Kerry James Marshall, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, Lorna Simpson – all members of a large artistic community.

The installation of these last works by the museum is particularly inspired: mounted at almost real size on the walls of the gallery, the photographs stage a meeting which places the spectator and the subject at an equal distance and respectful of each other. and on the other.

Curated by Elisabeth Sherman of Whitney and Corey Keller at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the exhibition originated, before a stop at the High Museum in Atlanta, the exhibition marks a kind of homecoming for Bey, born in the Queens in 1953. Bey frequently cited the profound experience of visiting the 1969 Met exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” which was protested by black artists for claiming to portray life in Harlem while not including than a few black artists; it was there that Bey first saw images of ordinary blacks in an institution that had long excluded them. A decade later, Bey opened her first exhibition of photographs at the Studio Museum – modest-scale black and white images depicting the minor keys to life in Harlem taken during frequent visits to the neighborhood from 1975 onwards. Entitled “Harlem” , USA the photographs are casual and social, showing moments of quiet contemplation and celebration, as in a 1978 portrait of three elegant, older women in their finery as they lean over a barricade of police.

While Bey is perhaps best known for his such sensitive and intelligently composed portraits, it is his attention to place – a keen awareness of how place can anchor individuals in communities – that anchors his photographs. Her works avoid the often-set trap of black imagery, the dual responsibility of absolving the nation’s original sins and heralding a sense of progress, but Bey also pays close attention to how places change over time. time.

At the Whitney, Bey’s snapshots of Harlem from the 1970s are paired with a more recent series, Harlem Redux, which examines the impact of gentrification on the historically black neighborhood and its major sites. A 2016 diptych from this series shows the water-stained paper covering the facade of the former Lenox Lounge, whose famous Zebra Room was once populated by Zora Neale Hurston and Billie Holiday. The images take place in a corridor of the Whitney which overlooks the skyscrapers of the Meatpacking district, itself once a center for artists and cultural life, but since altered by the encroachment of global capital. They are elegiac and melancholic, vibrating with old notes of a past moment, but whose echoes resonate through contemporary life.

These resonances are most deeply felt in the “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” series, a 2017 series of large-scale gelatin silver prints printed in gradations of black and gray. To achieve these works, Bey traveled the Underground Railroad routes in northeastern Ohio, following the paths of runaway slaves as they headed north, and created daytime photographs that he transformed into twilight scenes through a special printing process. The almost monochrome finish forces the viewer to move their body to apprehend calm scenes of forest floors and banal white picket fences.

Devoid of any figure, these works seem at first to deny the long tortured heritage to which they allude. The view is often limited, the landscape is rendered as if it is seen through the interstices between the trees. As we walk through these images, we get ever closer to Lake Erie, the shores of which signaled freedom was at hand. Despite the stillness of the images, it is possible to make out the sounds of the waves – a constant and urgent rhythm that marks American history.


Dawoud Bey: an American project

Until October 3, Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St, Manhattan, 212-570-3600, whitney.org. Advance tickets required.

Tausif Noor is a Philadelphia-based critic and writer.


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