Posts Tagged ‘Dawoud Bey Two Girls from a Marching Band

07
Mar
21

Exhibition: ‘Dawoud Bey: An American Project’ at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Exhibition dates: 7th November 2020 – 14th March 2021

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY, 1976' 1976

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Man in a Bowler Hat, Harlem, NY, 1976
1976
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Early in his career, Bey realised the importance of collaborating with his subjects to make a picture that would also serve as a dialogue between artist and subject: “I wanted to photograph this man in the bowler hat who was talking to a group of three friends and I had no idea how to interrupt their conversation in order to do so. This is when I first realised that it wasn’t just about the photograph; it was also about establishing a relationship out of which comes the photograph.”

 

 

I have always admired artists who have a social conscience, who investigate their subject matter with intelligence, empathy and insight.

I have always admired artist who examine their subject matter from different perspectives, turning the diamond of the world in light, to probe the moral and existential questions of existence.

I have always admired artists who develop their practice, never repeating for the sake of it the same constructs over and over – from a lack of imagination, to be successful, or to follow the money trail.

One such artist is Dawoud Bey.

From formal to informal portraiture, through conceptual “bodies”, Bey’s work visualises Black American history in the present moment, not by using the trope of reusing colonial photographs or memorabilia, but by presenting afresh the history of injustice enacted on a people and a culture, picturing their ongoing pain and disenfranchisement – in the here and now – through powerful and deeply political photographs. As the press release observes, Bey “has used his camera to create poignant meditations on visibility, race, place, and American history.”

“His art is grounded in the concept of citizenship, community and belonging, and especially in centring the experiences and histories of Black Americans at the forefront of our culture. His photographs actively work to provide space, voice and visibility for communities who have long been excluded from dominant narratives, especially in institutions like museums.”

From his early street photographs through the later large format Polaroid work and on to the conceptual series, Bey’s photographs have an engaging directness and candour to them. There are no photographic or subjective histrionics here, just immensely rich social documentary photographs that speak truth to subject. The subjects stare directly at the camera and reveal themselves with a poignant honesty.

The series that affected me most deeply was The Birmingham Project.

“On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, murdering four African American girls inside. Two Black boys were also killed later that same day in the violence that ensued. Bey’s series The Birmingham Project commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of this horrific event, rendering it painfully immediate. Bey made formal portraits of Birmingham children the same ages as the victims and adults fifty years older – the ages the victims would have been had they lived. He then paired the photographs in diptychs that both honour the community’s unthinkable loss and make tangible the continued impact of racism, violence, and trauma in the present.”

All the suffering, all the ongoing pain and misery of an unfair world was, to me, wrapped up in these unforgettable images. The violence against other human beings, against people of difference 50 years ago brought into the present. Thinking about what these people could have achieved in the world, what life they would have led, what they would have looked like. Photography transcending time and space, Bey intelligently bringing past into present future. As Bey says, “I wanted to give those young people a more tangible, less-mythic, palpable presence… I wanted to figure out how to show the passage of time and the tragic loss of possibility.”

In my imagination I try to construct this tragic loss of possibility through the agency of Bey’s photographs. They produce sadness, anger, and empathy in me. They bring the possibility of change to the forefront of my mind, and an acknowledgment that we can all do better, that the world must do better. And that experience is a powerful thing.

Dr Marcus Bunyan.

.
Many thankx to the High Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“I’ve come to believe that the best works tend to result not from the imposition of an idea on a situation, but to be responsive to what’s going on once you get there.”

“How can one visualise African American history and make that history resonate in the contemporary moment?”

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Dawoud Bey

 

“Dreams are spaces that do not yet exist, except by escape through an unknown night.”

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Anna Mirzayan

 

“I Never Had White Folks That Was Good To Me, EVER… We all worked jest like dogs and had about half enough to eat and got whupped for everything. Our days was a constant misery to us… My old Master was Dave Giles, the meanest man that ever lived. He didn’t have many slaves, my mammy, and me, and my sister, Uncle Bill, and Truman. He had owned my grandma but he give her a bad whupping and she never did git over it and died. We all done as much work as a dozen niggers – we knowed we had to. I seen old Master git mad at Truman and he buckled him down across a barrel and whupped him till he cut the blood out of him and then he rubbed salt and pepper in the raw places. It looked like Truman would die it hurt so bad. I know that don’t sound reasonable that a white man in a Christian community would do such a thing but you can’t realise how heartless he was. People didn’t know about it and we dassent tell for we knowed he’d kill us if we did. You must remember he owned us body and soul and they wasn’t anything we could do about it. Old Mistress and her three girls was mean to us too. One time me and my sister was spinning and old Mistress went to the well-house and she found a chicken snake and killed it. She brought it back and she throwed it around my sister’s neck. She jest laughed and laughed about it. She thought it was a big joke. Old Master stayed drunk all the time. I reckon that is the reason he was so fetched mean. My, how we hated him! He finally killed hisself drinking and I remember Old Mistress called us in to look at him in his coffin. We all marched by him slow like and I jest happened to look up and caught my sister’s eye and we both jest natchelly laughed – Why shouldn’t we? We was glad he was dead. It’s a good thing we had our laugh fer old Mistress took us out and whupped us with a broomstick. She didn’t make us sorry though.”

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Annie Hawkins, formerly enslaved Afrikan who was sold from Georgia to Texas. This interview was done in Colbert, Oklahoma where her and her family moved after emancipation. Interview, conducted Spring, 1937 with a date stamp of August 16, 1937. Ms. Hawkins was 90 years old at the time of the interview and what she relates occurred in Texas. Source: Library of Congress

 

 

Since the beginning of his career in the 1970s, Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) has used his camera to create poignant meditations on visibility, race, place, and American history. From early street portraits made in Harlem to a recent series imagining an escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad, Bey explores photography’s potential to reveal communities and stories that have been underrepresented or even unseen. Both a form of personal expression and an act of political responsibility, Bey’s art insists on the power of photography to transform stereotypes, convene communities, and create dialogue.

Dawoud Bey: An American Project traces these through lines across the forty-five years of Bey’s career and his profound engagement with the young Black subject and African American history. The title intentionally inserts his photographs into a long-running conversation about what it means to represent America with a camera. The questions of who is considered an American photographer, or simply an American, and whose story is an American story are particularly urgent today. Bey’s work offers a potent corrective to the gaps in our picture of American society and history – and an emphatic reminder of the ongoing impact of those omissions.

 

 

Dawoud Bey on visualising history

Photographer Dawoud Bey’s work grapples with history. The artist asks, “How can one visualise African American history and make that history resonate in the contemporary moment?” Here he discusses several series, sited from Harlem to Birmingham to the Underground Railroad routes of northeastern Ohio, each of which works to make histories visible.

 

 

Dawoud Bey: An American Project – Part 1

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Boy in Front of the Loew's 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY, 1976' 1976

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY, 1976
1976
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

The Street

Bey’s landmark black-and-white 1975-78 series “Harlem, USA” documents portraits and street scenes with locals of the historic neighbourhood in New York. As a young man growing up in Queens, Bey was intrigued by his family’s history in Harlem, where his parents met and where he visited family and friends throughout childhood. The series premiered at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979, when Bey was just 26.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Woman at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Harlem, NY, 1977' 1977

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Woman at Convent Avenue Baptist Church, Harlem, NY, 1977
1977
Gelatin silver print
11 x 14 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

In his hands, portraiture conveys contradiction – diffident joy, resistant sorrow – and tells the truth.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY, 1978' 1978

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY, 1978
1978
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

“His art is grounded in the concept of citizenship, community and belonging, and especially in centring the experiences and histories of Black Americans at the forefront of our culture. His photographs actively work to provide space, voice and visibility for communities who have long been excluded from dominant narratives, especially in institutions like museums.”

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Two Boys at a Handball Court, Syracuse, NY, 1985' 1985

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Two Boys at a Handball Court, Syracuse, NY, 1985
1985
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Throughout the 1980s, Bey continued to use a handheld 35 mm camera. This lightweight apparatus allowed him to respond intuitively and quickly to whatever captivated his eye, and his photographs during this time reflect his knowledge of contemporary street photography and his growing interest in capturing flux, movement, and the play of light and shadow. Although he continued to photograph people, he moved away from formal portraiture, instead endeavouring to capture individuals in more spontaneous ways.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Clothes Drying on the Line, Syracuse, NY, 1985' 1985

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Clothes Drying on the Line, Syracuse, NY, 1985
1985
Gelatin silver print
20 x 24 inches
Image courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Combing Hair, Syracuse, NY, 1986' 1986

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Combing Hair, Syracuse, NY, 1986
1986
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

In 1985, during a residency at Light Work, a photography nonprofit affiliated with Syracuse University, New York, Bey photographed the city’s African American community. For him, it was both a political and aesthetic choice: “By then I felt that was part of my agenda: to make the African American subject a visible and resonant presence through my photographs […] it was as much about making a certain kind of photograph, and operating within a certain tradition, as it was a deliberate choice to foreground the black subject […] giving them a place … on the wall of galleries and museums.”

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1988' 1988

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1988
1988
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

By the end of the 1980s, Bey had thoroughly digested the lessons of working spontaneously with a small camera and desired to work in a way that would allow him to engage more directly with his subjects. He began to make formal “street portraits” with a large-format (4- × 5-inch) camera and Polaroid Type 55 film, which produced both instant pictures that he gave to the sitters and negatives that he used to make large-scale, highly detailed prints that could be enlarged to create monumental portraits. Bey was increasingly ambivalent about the ethics of traditional documentary photography and sought more equitable, reciprocal relationships with his sitters. He began to approach the strangers he wished to portray openly and deliberately, giving, as he writes, “the black subjects [a space] to assert themselves and their presence in the world, with their gaze meeting the viewer’s on equal footing.”

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Young Man Resting on an Exercise Bike, Amityville, NY, 1988' 1988

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Young Man Resting on an Exercise Bike, Amityville, NY, 1988
1988
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Young Girl Striking A Pose, Brooklyn, NY, 1988' 1988

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Young Girl Striking A Pose, Brooklyn, NY, 1988
1988
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Young Man with Buttons Brooklyn NY 1988' 1988

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Young Man with Buttons Brooklyn NY 1988
1988
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Young Woman Coming from the Store, Rochester, NY 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Young Woman Coming from the Store, Rochester, NY 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Young Man with His Hair Brush, Rochester, NY 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Young Man with His Hair Brush, Rochester, NY 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Alfonso, Washington, DC, 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Alfonso, Washington, DC, 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Woman Wearing Denim, Rochester, NY 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Woman Wearing Denim, Rochester, NY 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Man with a Towel, Brooklyn, NY 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Man with a Towel, Brooklyn, NY 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Poppy Brooklyn, NY, 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Poppy, Brooklyn, NY, 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Girl Holding a Hotdog and Gum, Brooklyn, NY, 1989' 1989

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Girl Holding a Hotdog and Gum, Brooklyn, NY, 1989
1989
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1990' 1990

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1990
1990
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Few images of tenderness have such resounding power as this lush portrait of a young, stylish couple embracing in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. Note how perfectly their bodies fit together as he relaxes his shoulders, allowing her to easily wrap her arms around him protectively, declaring with the upward tilt of her chin and her direct gaze at us that they are together, united in love. Pictures as openly intimate as this one emerged from Bey’s deep and abiding interest in “wanting to describe the Black subject in a way that’s as complex as the experiences of anyone else.”

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Two Girls from a Marching Band, Harlem, NY, 1990' 1990

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Two Girls from a Marching Band, Harlem, NY, 1990
1990
Gelatin silver print
Courtesy of the artist, Sean Kelly Gallery, Stephen Daiter Gallery, and Rena Bransten Gallery
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

For more than four decades, renowned photographer Dawoud Bey has created powerful and tender photographs that portray underrepresented communities and explore African American history. From portraits in Harlem and classic street photography to nocturnal landscapes and large-scale studio portraits, his works combine an ethical imperative with an unparalleled mastery of his medium. The High Museum of Art celebrates his important contributions to photography as the exclusive Southeast venue for Dawoud Bey: An American Project, the artist’s first full career retrospective in 25 years.

Co-organised by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the exhibition features approximately 80 works that span the breadth of Bey’s career, from his earliest street portraits made in Harlem in the 1970s to his most recent series reimagining sites of the Underground Railroad (2017).

The High has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Bey, who was commissioned in 1996 for the Museum’s inaugural “Picturing the South” series, which asks noted photographers to turn their lens toward the American South. For his project, Bey collaborated with Atlanta high school students to create empathetic, larger-than-life portraits. Made with the monumental 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, these photographs explore the complexity of adolescence as a time of critical identity formation and expand the concept of portraiture. The High now holds more than 50 photographs by Bey, one of the most significant museum collections of his work.

“Bey’s portraits are remarkable for their keen sensitivity and for how they elicit and honour their subjects’ sense of self, which is partly an outcome of the artist’s collaborative practice,” remarked Sarah Kennel, the High’s Donald and Marilyn Keough Family curator of photography. “Given the museum’s long relationship with Bey and the strength of our holdings, we are thrilled to present this important retrospective. We look forward to sharing the artist’s photographs and his powerful and moving reflections on African American history and identity in their country with our visitors.”

Bey, born in 1953 in Queens, New York, began to develop an interest in photography as a teenager. He received his first camera as a gift from his godmother in 1968, and the next year, he saw the exhibition “Harlem on My Mind” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Widely criticised for its failure to include significant numbers of artworks by African Americans, the exhibition’s representation of Black subjects nonetheless made an impression on Bey and inspired him to develop his own documentary project about Harlem in 1975. Since that time, he has worked primarily in portraiture, making tender, psychologically rich and direct portrayals, often in collaboration with his subjects. More recently, he has explored seminal moments in African American history through both portraiture and landscape.

Dawoud Bey: An American Project includes work from the artist’s eight major series and is organised to reflect the development of Bey’s vision throughout his career and to highlight his enduring engagement with portraiture, place and history.

Press release from The High Museum of Art

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Dawoud Bey: An American Project' at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Installation view of the exhibition 'Dawoud Bey: An American Project' at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta

 

Installation views of the exhibition Dawoud Bey: An American Project at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.
Images courtesy of the artist and High Museum. Photos by Mike Jensen.

 

Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey
Photo: Sean Kelly Gallery

 

 

About Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey was born in Queens, New York, and began his career as a photographer in 1975 with a series of photographs, Harlem, USA, that were later exhibited in his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.

Since then his work has been featured in exhibitions at numerous institutions worldwide, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Fogg Museum, Harvard University; the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Photography (MoCP), Chicago; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, among many others.

His photographs are represented in collections worldwide, and his critical writings on photography have appeared in numerous publications and exhibition catalogues. Bey received the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” fellowship in 2017 and is also the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from Yale University and is currently Professor of Art and a Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Gerard, Edgewater High School, Orlando, FL, 2003' 2003

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Gerard, Edgewater High School, Orlando, FL, 2003
2003
Inkjet print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Behind his Class Pictures series:

“It was a sort of snapshot of America through its young people at that particular moment. I started working in Chicago, then to New York, California and Florida. I wanted it to be geographically representative of the country. I’ve always been acutely aware that photographs tell you a lot less than what they do tell you. There’s certain things you would never know just from looking at them. You wouldn’t know from a portrait if someone is an only child, whether they have siblings, who their parents are. There’s a lot of information outside of a photograph. For Class Pictures, I thought that was important to bring that information into the construct of work and to create a space of self-representation. The young people who I photographed could give a sense of who they were.”

Summer Evans. “Photographer Dawoud Bey Shines A Light On America’s Underrepresented Communities,” on the WABE website Nov 18, 2020 [Online] Cited 01/03/2021

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Usha, Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA, 2006' 2006

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Usha, Gateway High School, San Francisco, CA, 2006
2006
Inkjet print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Bey has long understood that the act of representation – as well as the corollary act of being seen – is both powerful and deeply political. In this series, he once again turned his attention to teenagers, a population he felt was underrepresented and misjudged, seen either as “socially problematic or as engines for a certain consumerism.” Class Pictures (2001-2006) originated during a residency at the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, where Bey began working with local high school students. He later expanded it to capture a geographically and socioeconomically diverse slice of American adolescence.

Working in empty classrooms between class periods, Bey made formal colour portraits of teens that attend, carefully and tenderly, to their gestures and expressions. He also invited them to write brief autobiographical statements, giving his subjects visibility as well as voice. Class Pictures can also be understood as a play on words, for in several cases, Bey chose to photograph students at elite private schools as well as teens from nearby, poorer neighbourhoods, bringing together these subjects in a single space.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Don Sledge and Moses Austin' 2012

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Don Sledge and Moses Austin
2012
From The Birmingham Project
Inkjet prints
Rennie Collection, Vancouver
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

On September 15, 1963, the Ku Klux Klan dynamited the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, murdering four African American girls inside. Two Black boys were also killed later that same day in the violence that ensued. Bey’s series The Birmingham Project commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of this horrific event, rendering it painfully immediate. Bey made formal portraits of Birmingham children the same ages as the victims and adults fifty years older – the ages the victims would have been had they lived. He then paired the photographs in diptychs that both honour the community’s unthinkable loss and make tangible the continued impact of racism, violence, and trauma in the present.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Mary Parker and Caela Cowan' 2012

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Mary Parker and Caela Cowan
2012
From The Birmingham Project
Inkjet prints
Rennie Collection, Vancouver
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

“Together the sitters for The Birmingham Project are simultaneously surrogates, mourners, witnesses, community, and agents of their own narratives. These subjects, then are not symbols but flesh and bone.”

 

In 2012, the project was created as a commission from the Birmingham Museum of Art. It memorialises the victims of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Four African-American girls were killed in the bombing, and two boys were later killed in riots that followed.

“I decided to make portraits of young African-Americans in Birmingham who were the exact same ages as those six young people who had been killed that day. I wanted to give those young people a more tangible, less-mythic, palpable presence.” Bey continues, “It still felt somewhat complete. I wanted to figure out how to show the passage of time and the tragic loss of possibility. Then, I started thinking about making portraits of African-Americans in Birmingham who were the ages of the six young people would have been their age today. I begun pairing those portraits with those young people, which embodied 50 years.”

Summer Evans. “Photographer Dawoud Bey Shines A Light On America’s Underrepresented Communities,” on the WABE website Nov 18, 2020 [Online] Cited 01/03/2021

 

Night Coming Tenderly, Black

Dawoud Bey’s large-scale photographs dive into art and literary history while trying to re-create the experience of slaves fleeing on the Underground Railroad.

“I consider myself to be making photographs both in conversation with the history of photography and also the history of Black representation within photography. I wanted to use what I learned early on from looking at photographs by Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Walker Evans and Mike Disfarmer – along with what I learned from Roy DeCarava, who was African American – and apply all of that to my own African American subjects as I began to build my vocabulary of picture-making. Because I’m African American myself, and because so few representations of African Americans are made from inside that experience, I set out to make that my space, to make work that operated at the level of those other photographs but with Black subjects, since those were the people I knew best. I also wanted to add something to the history of Black expressive culture. …

Night Coming Tenderly, Black continues my interest in visualising African American history by visualising the past in the contemporary moment. It takes as its conceptual touchstones the photographs of DeCarava, which are about the Black subject and often printed very darkly, some almost black. The blackness of his prints is a very beautiful and materially lush blackness. And the Black subjects inhabit this wonderful material darkness in a way that is not foreboding but is beautiful.” ~ Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey. ‘Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse)’ 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

The photographs in this series are some of the most sensual and layered. These are sights that are at first confining then liberating when you understand them through the lens of history.

In their grandeur and mystery, they transform houses masked in darkness, bodies of water, and fields into an emblematic hope. A pristine fencepost and a homestead visible through the haze of the darkness; a wetland glistening in nightfall; a jungle thick with small trees; an image of Lake Erie, with the expansive sky and horizon forewarning the freedom that lies beyond.

 

The Underground Railroad

Night Coming Tenderly, Black contains 25 large-scale images of homesteads with wooded or grassy grounds that are believed to have formed the part of the said Underground Railroad. The Underground Railroad is an actual invisible web of routes and safe houses believed to have made the final way station for more than 100,000 fugitive slaves escaping to Canada. But according to the artist himself, some of the images may be of actual Underground Railroad.

 

The meaning of the title

This series is also a tribute to poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and photographer Roy DeCarava (1919-2009), who each played significant roles in addressing the experience of African Americans by representing what DeCarava described as a world shaped by blackness. Bey was inspired by DeCarava’s incredible ability to print a spectrum of dark hues, making him picture landscapes of twilight uncertainty.

On the other hand, Hughes Langston wrote a poem titled Dream Variations in 1926, in which he yearned for a time when the black American worker, extremely tired by the daily hustle of hard labor and prejudice, might be truly free. However, this freedom, he imagined, would not be obtained in the glare of daylight, but instead under the ominous, protective cover of the night.

Upending a dominant literary conceit, blackness, rather than whiteness, functioned as an allegory for hope and transcendence. A night coming tenderly, black like me, (Hughes poem), helped the fight for racial equality and justice. The metaphor in the poem is central to Dawoud Bey’s series Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

 

Influenced by Roy DeCarava

Bey has never stopped waxing lyrical on the influence of the two figures that inspired his artistic career, especially Roy DeCarava, who was one of the most prominent photographers of his generation. The images he took were visually rich and redolent, and they pushed the aesthetic limits of photography…

Dawoud Bey noted that DeCarava’s images were characteristically printed in dark and rich colour range. In this context, the dark prints served as a symbol for black subjects and experience. Bey says:

“DeCarava used blackness as an affirmative value, as a kind of beautiful blackness through which his subjects both moved and emerged. His work was formative to my own thinking early on, and these dark landscapes are a kind of material conversation with his work, using the darkness of the landscape and the photographic print as an evocative space of blackness through which the unseen and imaginary black fugitive subject is moving.” …

The artist printed these images in a large size to encase the viewer and deliberately dark to reveal his subject matter: He took the photos of the sites in and near Cleveland associated with the Underground Railroad that guided the slaves to liberation.

Anonymous. “Dawoud Bey’s somber ‘Night Coming Tenderly, Black’ project,” on the Public Delivery website  January 30, 2021 website [Online] Cited 02/03/2021

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #11 (Bent Branches)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #11 (Bent Branches)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #12 (The Marsh)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #12 (The Marsh)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

“I ranged far and wideout there since there were expansive rural landscapes that looked as they might have in the 18th and 19th centuries. The landscape and the history there have not been built over…

Some of the photographs, to the extent that we know, are actual Underground Railroad sites, and the majority of them are placed in the landscape that I identified in proximity to some of those locations, where I could make work that suggested the movement of fugitive slaves through the landscape…

I wanted the photographs to almost involuntarily pull you back to the experience of the landscape through which those fugitive black bodies were moving in the 19th century to escape slavery. So I had to learn, for the first time, how to make photographs in the kind of space…

It is a tender one, through which one moves. That is the space I imagined the fugitive black subjects moving through as they sought their self-liberation, moving through the dark landscape of America and Ohio toward freedom under cover of a munificent and blessed blackness.” ~ Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #14 (Site of John Brown's Tannery)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #14 (Site of John Brown’s Tannery)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #17 (Forest)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #17 (Forest)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Bey’s most recent work imagines the flight of enslaved Black Americans along the leg of the Underground Railroad that operated in Ohio – the last fifty or so miles before they reached the vast expanse of Lake Erie, on the other side of which lay Canada, and freedom.

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #19 (Creek and Trees)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #19 (Creek and Trees)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

Behind his Night Coming Tenderly, Black series:

“The photographs are meant to imagine or reimagine the path of self-liberation in Northeastern Ohio along what is called the ‘Underground Railroad’. Formerly slaved Africans, and then African-Americans moved towards freedom by way of Lake Eerie in Ohio. I began to think about the fugitive moving through this tender space of blackness.”

Anonymous. “Dawoud Bey’s somber ‘Night Coming Tenderly, Black’ project,” on the Public Delivery website  January 30, 2021 website [Online] Cited 02/03/2021

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #20 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse I)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #20 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse I)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

The gelatin silver prints in Night Coming Tenderly, Black are moody and dim, overlaid with a sheen that is almost gritty in texture thanks to the coated paper they are printed on. The trees, fences, lakes, and buildings in the photos are initially obscured, purposefully made more difficult to see through Bey’s printing methods (which take advantage of the light sensitivity of silver particles as well as their ability to be chemically “toned” through the introduction of other substances). These images resist both reproduction and easy interpretation. That one also has to wait for one’s eyes to adjust to the darkness, before slowly traveling over the terrain of each picture, reminds the viewer that the formerly enslaved people who traversed these sites often did so under cover of darkness. Darkness here is multivalent: its obscuring power, which prevents viewers from immediately processing the whole of Bey’s photographs, aided formerly enslaved people in their escape. The Underground Railroad, as the artist has noted, occupies a semi-mythological place in American history, and some of the places Bey photographs are only cannot be confirmed to have been stops on the Railroad. Like the experience of slavery, these places are unrepresentable. They are half-shrouded locales that evade being captured on a map or in a photo.

Though these photographs are dark, they are shot in the daylight and processed in such a way as to make them initially appear to be taken at night. They bring to mind Hiroshi Sugimoto’s eerily beautiful “Seascapes” series (1980- ongoing), which are shot at night, the film exposed for different lengths of time in order to reveal how light plays even after dark. Yet there is no analogous method for bringing night to the day. Bey may make his photos dark, but this is achieved through processing and glazing the finish image, which occurs after the initial act of taking the photograph. How can we account for Bey’s artificial night?

The philosopher François Laruelle’s 2011 book The Concept of Non-Photography suggests one answer to this question. In essence, Laruelle starts with the premise that works of art cannot and do not represent anything, be it objects, thoughts, concepts, or movements. He posits art as an entirely self-sufficient engagement with the world (which he calls the Real), independent even of viewer and creator. Art is a machine; the medium, processes, and even the artist are its materials. What art “shows,” Laurelle argues, is only the world according to itself – which he terms the world-in-painting, the world-in-photo, and so on. He turns to photography in part because of its connection to modern scientific advancement and its attempts literally to illuminate the world “objectively.” Non-photography aims to re-conceptualise the photographic flash, which Laruelle associates with the flash of logos or reason, as a form of potential insurrection against its traditional association with illumination, and against photography’s constant reproduction of the asymmetrical dichotomy between light and dark.

Anna Mirzayan. “”Artificial night”: on Dawoud Bey’s America,” on the Art Agenda website December 15 2020 [Online] Cited 01/03/2021

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #23 (Near Lake Erie)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #23 (Near Lake Erie)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

“I was thinking about this narrative of the Black subject — the unseen Black subject, in this case — a fugitive slave moving through the darkness of night,” Bey explains. “And that darkness of night being the kind of Black space that would lead to liberation.”

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) 'Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky)' 2017

 

Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953)
Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky)
2017
From the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black
Gelatin silver print
© Dawoud Bey

 

 

As a covert network of safe houses and churches, the sites of the Underground Railroad were by necessity secret, and Bey’s landscapes suggest, rather than document, the experience. Photographed by day but printed in shades of grey and black so deep they resemble nocturnes, the sensuous prints conjure a darkness at once ominous and lush. The series title, which is drawn from the last couplet of Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Variations” (1926), suggests a black night that envelops the fugitives in a darkness that serves as a protective embrace: “Night coming tenderly / Black like me.”

 

 

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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