Dawoud Bey: An American Project at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is a chance to see the breadth of work by one of the giants of American photography over the length of his career, which spans nearly a half-century. This show brings his photography to Texas mainly through work produced along the East Coast in his early career, and later through the Midwest and the deep South.
Bey’s work is a foundational part of understanding American visual culture. He rose from a long history of Black photographers with deep ties to Harlem, from James Van Der Zee, to Gordon Parks, to the Kemoinge Workshop. He distinguished his practice by specifically seeking to insert the lexicon of ordinary Black folks, particularly in portraiture, into museum spaces and art history.
His admiration of Roy DeCarava’s textural and artful approach to the photographic form was formative especially in his younger years, but he developed into his own practice by finding what the late Greg Tate described as capturing the “Black gaze”:
“…how Black folk’s eye-to-eye looking-back game can meet any righteous or even reckless eyeballing judgment the world might bring with an equal and opposing optical Super-Kryptonian heat-visioned (and haute-visioned) force – a stare, a glare, an inquiring dare, a wry comeback, an introspective indifference, a casual summation, an audacious insouciance, an Amazonian, eye-rolling snapback.”
This exhibition showcases the full force of Bey’s wide-ranging work, framing the power of the Black gaze in his iconic pieces from the 1970s through the 80s, while also unpacking the complexity of his work in architectural form, and in temporal experimentations dealing with loss and recovery.
The exhibition is divided into six rooms, focusing on nine key photographic series from Bey’s career, ranging from 1975 to 2020. The earliest is his Harlem USA series, represented with 13 black and white photographs. His 1978 A Woman and Two Boys Passing is impressionist in its fleeting, ephemeral capture of a moment on the streets of Harlem. The photo is divided roughly in half, with two early teenage boys moving away from the camera on one side, and a woman standing on the other, looking toward the direction where these figures came from.
The boys, with their matching gait, rapidly walk away from the viewer while talking to one another effortlessly. One boy’s jacket balloons with air with a long step forward, and in their confidence and comfort with the pavement — their pavement — they fully own the streets that they are traversing. The woman, in contrast of movement and speed, is very much still, leaning against a vertical railing, one side of which is bent toward her like a parenthesis. The boys’ long afternoon shadows cast a perpendicular bridge across to the standing woman.
This work shows the complexity of Bey’s compositions at this early stage in his career. It is a network of diagonals in contrast to the vertical patterning of the railing. A strong asymmetrical balance is achieved through alternating between light and shadows and the mix of organic and hard outlines. Bey also plays with size and scale, and temporality, between his moving and still subjects.
The same room displays another related series, Harlem Redux, which shows a 40-year aftermath of the neighborhood that he captured to begin his long career. These are much larger inkjet color photos that revisit Harlem as a subject, and unlike his earlier works, they are mostly architectural, and devoid of active human subjects.
Bey’s Two Men Walking (2014) in this series makes an obvious allusion to A Woman and Two Boys Passing. Taken from a high vantage point, this work is also divided nearly in half, and this time, with a wide-angle shot of Harlem’s street on one side, and a flat, blank wall surface that confronts the viewer on the other. A column of lens glare lays pentagonal gems along the vertical axis of the composition. Two tiny figures are visibly walking away from the camera on the street side, while light reflecting on a series of windows plays a ghostly presence on the impenetrable wall’s surface, softening them through their indeterminacy.
There’s a clear formal connection to Daguerre’s View of the Boulevard du Temple (1838), the earliest photograph ever to have depicted a person, an art historical nudge to Bey’s earliest series. The two walking figures are an extension across time, of his two boys walking away from his 1978 work, including their familiarity with one another in their matching gait — but instead of finding comfort swinging along the pavement, their presence is compressed by their environment, a sense accentuated by the downward gaze of the lens. On the other side, in the space between the flat, concrete wall and the photographer, is an indication of where a building used to stand. Bey places the viewer within the composition by trying to find meaning in its absence, between his boys and these men; there’s a profound sense of loss within this gap. People are bound to get lost in this space, gentrified and displaced.
The next room displays the series from the 1980s, which was taken in Syracuse, NY. Here, Bey is developing his art of photographing amongst people, and developing a more intentional relationship with his subjects. In Woman and Three Children (1985), all four subjects, likely related to one another, are looking in different directions while standing outside of a bus station. Bey himself has a stron presence here, as the young girl stares at his lens, questioning his position, challenging his intrusion into the shared space of the family unit. Her chin is tucked downward, with a slightly hardened look. Her standing body forms a zig zag in her quizzical interest in the photographer and now, the viewer.
All members of this family are wearing different clothing, including solid colors, stripes and checkers in various textures, and unique hairstyles: tight curls, braids and straightened. They’re also all reflecting their gazes away from one another. In spite of this unspooling sense among them, their criss-crossing looks fill the entire frame, and there is a feeling of disorganized but enveloping familiarity in the each person’s differences. Again, the composition is a network of diagonals that build up to an overt architectural space in the compression of the frame. If his Harlem series was heavily referencing Roy DeCarava and his love of the baroque, the Syracuse series is a testing step toward the in-the-moment reciprocal intimacy that Bey is known for.
The following room arranges a selection of the artist’s iconic street portraits taken with a 4×5 inch format camera, many of which were made in Brooklyn, NY. This is the series in which Bey began giving his subjects a copy of the photo he had taken of them, a recognition of their reciprocity. In A Man on the Way to the Cleaners (1990), a man with a wrestler’s ears stands in a resting position with his hands in his pockets. He is neatly dressed, save for a few short bursts of the unexpected: a casual glimpse of the metal zipper of his pants peeking briefly but brilliantly open, and the buttons of his duckbill cap popped open on either side, veering apart. There’s a vertical compositional juxtaposition of ins-and-outs: button pop, tuck tie, downward drag, tie clip tuck, worn belt sag, pop open zipper top, peek.
The man’s gaze is an acknowledging gaze. He is relaxed but still, with dark vertically striped pants and a checkered jacket draped in the crook of his left arm. Caught while doing errands, consenting to a photo. There’s an immediacy coupled with the familiar and unfamiliar, and a sense of grace in his reception of the camera. He stands against an architectural backdrop of a Brooklyn brownstone, in front of the curls and points of a painted brass railing and barred first-floor windows. There’s an empty space in the middle ground between the building wall and the railing that allows Bey’s subject to breathe while also putting him in a relatively shallow space. The man is placed slightly off of the center axis, imbuing the work with a restless stillness common in the artist’s work. Bey’s constructional composition supports the elevation of his subject to embodying art in everyday, working and middle class Black folk.
Bey, in the 90s started bringing color to his work, and his continuing work with adolescents became more intentional. In one of his Classroom series, Omar (2005), Bey captures the portrait of a young man who has just written a short biography of himself. In the text, the youth wonders about how others perceive him in contrast to how he might see himself: “They probably see me as a brown guy. Then, they might see my black beard and my white kufi (prayer cap) and figure out I am Muslim…Sometimes I wonder what color my soul is. I hope that it’s the color of heaven.” The portrait itself is a network of contradictions. Bey frames the subject close-up and intimate, with the contrast of his upper body leaning forward toward the photographer, while his arms are tucked protectively away. His hands are closed into loose fists against his arm and desk, and his shoulders are hunched timidly inward, yet he looks back with an intense, searching gaze. The background is unfocused, directing the viewer toward a sense of closeness with the subject instead, with the predominant color in the work being represented by the sitter’s blue collared shirt, which recalls heaven. We get the sense that it is an acute realization of his personality in a single, timeless moment.
On the gallery’s adjacent wall are Bey’s series of large-format polaroids. They are very physical photo-objects with a voluminous surface quality; light plays on their uneven, material surfaces. Six polaroids come together in two rows to make up an entire picture, like a puzzle, with each photo capturing slightly varying angles, with a passage of time in between. In Marcia and Waynette (1996), two people fit against one another. Between their faces and hands, which are in focus, the rest of their bodies fade quickly into a blur. With this, Bey starts breaking apart the subject, and time creeps into the composition, which is complicated by Bey’s reference to 18th century portrait paintings and a sense of familiarity akin to French portrait painter Vigée Le Brun.
In the 2010s, Bey’s projects started unpacking history by making absence visible. One of these key efforts is a series revisiting the history of the 1963 bombing of the 16th street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which was an influential source for Bey’s imagery from his childhood. Four girls were killed by the bombs set off by white supremacists, and two boys were also killed in racial attacks that extended the violence. The series pairs photographs of adults who are the current ages of the victims, had they survived, with images of young people who are the same ages as the victims. The series makes visible, between each pair of sitters, the lives missing because of the immense violence of white supremacists during the Civil Rights Movement.
A video work memorializes the ordinary-seeming day of the bombing: September 15, 1963. The frame is once again divided in half. The left side slowly moves over interior surfaces in smooth, varying speeds — over lunch counters, textures of furniture, metal napkin dispensers. The right side, taken from the perspective of a child looking out of a moving vehicle, shows long power lines passing against the sky. The directionality of the camera’s movement changes intermittently, sometimes moving simultaneously toward the central axis, sometimes coordinating toward the outer edge, sometimes perpendicular, altogether developing an uncertain rhythm of relative speeds and ever-changing coordinates. The piece reconstructs a historical space out of the complexity of compositional form that Bey has developed over time. It makes visible what was lost in the destructive force of racial hate, the innocence and the presumption of the everyday.
Bey’s more recent work continues to become increasingly interested in visualizing loss around the history of Black folks in America. In his Night Coming Tenderly series, named after the Langston Hughes poem Dream Variations, on-location photos of unmarked places along the underground railroad in Ohio are enveloped in the softness of dusk. Devoid of any figures, the images are taken from the vantage point of those who were seeking freedom along the passage. Hughes’s poem, which reads, “While night comes on gently, Dark like me—…Night coming tenderly, Black like me,” offers a tonal framework for the series, which captures the disappearing visibility at sundown. As light and dark become indeterminate, a cover that would have provided a sense of comfort to those who traversed these paths in search of liberation washes over the landscape.
In his latest series, In This Here Place from 2019-20, Bey turns his camera toward plantations in Louisiana. These color photos are also devoid of figures, but by casting his lens at ordinary outdoor scenes that enslaved people would have encountered during their daily lives, the pictures retrace the resilience of those who survived these oppressive, dehumanizing places. Continuing to veer away from portraiture, Bey develops in the viewer a sense of getting lost in nature, and a sense of being shut out from safety. The works are essays on loss and are operating within absence, but they are also reclaiming the experience of historical agency.
The exhibition’s display in Houston is also a chance to reflect on the dialog between Bey’s foundational work in portraiture and the deep history of Black figurative art in Houston, coming out of the legacy of Dr. John Biggers. Between Texas Southern University, which specializes in figurative naturalism through linear expression, and the University of Houston’s more conceptual and painting emphasis, Houston is an important vanguard of Black art in the U.S. Through the work of Delita Martin or Robert Pruitt especially — both TSU alumni — one can trace the profound influence that Dr. Biggers had in defining the visual language of the contemporary Black figure. Bey’s figures are the photographic expressions of the frank beauty in the work of artists like Martin and Pruitt.
Bey’s works also engage with Houston’s own tradition of photography as developed since the 1970s by Earlie Hudnall Jr. and Ray Carrington III. Both photographers were students of Dr. Biggers, and while Hudnall’s iconic photos historicize Houston’s Black communities in a way parallel to Bey’s work in New York, Carrington has also inspired future generations of artists by teaching photography at Third Ward’s Jack Yates High School since 1993. These two artists are the foundation for young Black photographers of Houston, many of whom are continuing their predecessors’ work. Artists like Bria Lauren, whose photographic work celebrates Black women, and particularly queer bodies; Brian Ellison, whose photographs take apart gender stereotypes in Black communities; and Marc Newsome, who photographs gentrification and cultural loss in the Third Ward. Each artists’ work has deep resonance with Bey’s incisive photography in both portraiture and landscape. In these abstract conversations, all of these artists work toward rendering visible, toward recovering, and toward reclaiming Black imagery, both in the historic and the contemporary.
Dawoud Bey: An American Project will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston from March 6 to May 30, 2022.