Dawoud Bey grew up in Harlem and began taking pictures when he was 22 years old. Taking pictures of the city streets like many photographers who had come before him, the neighborhood provided a vast array of imagery. These works, known as the series Harlem, U.S.A., were first shown in 1979 at The Studio Museum in Harlem. These are perhaps Bey’s best known works that capture the identity of individuals within a particular place. The current show at The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago highlights works completed after that initial series.
Community is a theme explored in newer works composed of two vastly different people placed side-by-side. Bey now calls Chicago home and many of the works in the exhibition were taken in Hyde Park.
One thing that makes Bey different from other photographers is the time he takes with his subjects. Eventually, he found the sitter more interesting than his environment and began to isolate and focus on the person and their direct gaze into the camera. But by 2001, he left the studio and returned to the streets.
He loves to photograph young people and in a series called Class Pictures Bey asked students to write brief texts about themselves to accompany the portraits. Bey states that young people make interesting subjects because, “they are the arbiters of styles. The community; their appearance speaks most strongly of how a community of people defines themselves at a particular moment.”
I particularly love the series of shots of teenagers from 2009. In Aaron, the boy’s fingers are clasped in front showing a vulnerability juxtaposed with a strength and confidence in his gaze. Bey’s photographs help us to gain a sense of his subjects while also learning something about the artist and quite possibly, if we take the time, ourselves.
The exhibition is on view through June 24, 2012.