Before he became a photographer, Dawoud Bey trained as a jazz percussionist, looking to John Coltrane as a role model for melding craft with a commitment to social justice. As a teenager in the 1960s, Bey was finely attuned to the social and political upheavals of the civil rights movement, staging sit-ins and demonstrations with his high school classmates and joining the Black Panther Party, whose newspaper he sold on the weekends. By 1968, the struggle for racial equality was converging with demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and the early stages of women’s liberation, forming a pattern of transformation and upheaval that culminated with the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That year, Bey inherited a camera from his godfather, and soon began to study the history and techniques of the medium, poring over images by Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava and learning how to print and develop film from a Black photographer in his Queens neighborhood. Bey recognized that though a picture may seem like a static record, by looking carefully and with intention, a photographer could illuminate more than what was visible in the frame and clue viewers to histories hidden beneath the surface. “The present never completely supplants the past,” the artist noted in an interview in Aperture last December. “History doesn’t implode, it expands.”
“An American Project,” a retrospective survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art, shows the 68-year-old artist’s nuanced understanding of history as both subjective and dynamic. Under Bey’s careful eye, history emerges as an active presence, authored in real time by individuals and societies who transform and are transformed by the continual unfolding of the past.
Across two floors and nearly five decades of work, the exhibition distinguishes Bey within the canon of American photography as an artist whose adaptations to the technical changes within his craft have not come at the expense of his ethical commitment to portraying Black life in all its richness and complexity.
From early 1970s scenes made with a 35-millimeter camera to portraits in the 1980s and 1990s developed with a 4 x 5 tripod-mounted apparatus, Bey has attempted to erase his own presence as a photographer, slowing down his process and allowing his subjects to take charge. Made at a larger scale, these photographs, such as one closely cropped image of a walleyed young man on a bicycle, not only demonstrate Bey’s ability to heighten his subjects’ interiority with a careful attention to detail, but also heighten viewers’ awareness that they, like Bey, are sharing 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 an extended artistic community.
The museum’s installation of these later works is particularly inspired: Mounted at near-life size on the gallery walls, the photographs stage an encounter that places viewer and subject at an equal and mutually respectful distance.
Curated by the Whitney’s Elisabeth Sherman and Corey Keller at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the exhibition originated, before a stop at Atlanta’s High Museum, the exhibition marks a kind of homecoming for Bey, who was born in Queens in 1953. Bey has frequently cited the profound experience of visiting the Met’s 1969 exhibition “Harlem on My Mind,” which was protested by Black artists for purporting to portray life in Harlem while including only a few Black artists; it was there that Bey witnessed, for the first time, images of ordinary Black people in an institution that had long excluded them. A decade later, Bey opened his first exhibition of photographs at the Studio Museum — modest scale black-and-white images depicting the minor keys of life in Harlem made during frequent sojourns to the neighborhood beginning in 1975. Titled “Harlem, U.S.A.” the photographs are casual and social, showing moments of quiet contemplation and celebration, as in a 1978 portrait of three elegant, older women dressed in their finery as they lean over a police barricade.
Though Bey is perhaps best known for such sensitive and smartly composed portraits, it is his attention to location — a keen awareness of how place can ground individuals in communities — that anchors his photographs. His works sidestep the trap often set for Black imagery, the dual responsibility to absolve the nation’s original sins and announce a sense of progress, but Bey also pays close attention to how places change over time.
At the Whitney, Bey’s 1970s snapshots of Harlem are paired with a more recent series, Harlem Redux, that examines gentrification’s impact 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 famed Zebra Room was once populated by the likes of Zora Neale Hurston and Billie Holiday. The images are set in a corridor at the Whitney that looks out onto the skyscrapers of the Meatpacking district, itself once a hub for artists and cultural life, but since altered by the encroachment of global capital. They are elegiac and wistful, vibrating with erstwhile notes of a moment since passed, but whose echoes resound across contemporary life.
Such resonances are most deeply felt in the series “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” a 2017 series of large-scale gelatin silver prints printed in gradations of black and gray. To make these works, Bey traveled along the routes of the Underground Railroad in northeastern Ohio, following the paths of fugitive slaves as they made their way north, and created daytime photographs that he transformed into crepuscular scenes through a particular printing process. The near-monochrome finish requires the viewer to move their body to apprehend quiet scenes of forest floors and mundane white picket fences.
Devoid of any figures, these works appear at first to belie the long, tortured legacies to which they allude. The vantage is often limited, the landscape rendered as if peered through the gaps between trees. As we make our way through these images, we inch ever closer to Lake Erie, whose shores signaled that freedom was near. Despite the stillness of the images, it is possible to make out the sounds of the waves — a constant, urgent rhythm that scores the American story.
Dawoud Bey: An American Project
Through Oct. 3, Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort St, Manhattan, 212-570-3600, whitney.org. Advance tickets required.
Tausif Noor is a critic and writer based in Philadelphia.