Dawoud Bey’s portraits have a habit of staring you down. You get sucked in, ensnared by the subject’s eyes and attitude. “Charita, 2002,” like many of Bey’s portraits featured in the Renaissance Society’s Picturing People, hits you full on. Direct and unapologetic from the blaze in her eyes to the tilt of her hip to the cheetah-print slippers on her feet, Charita makes you feel like you’ve just met her. But of course you haven’t. It’s just Bey’s style.
From Harlem and Chicago to his artist residency at Phillips Andover Academy, Dawoud Bey has captured people with his lens. He is a portrait artist in the classical sense of the word. Taking cues from the likes of Rembrandt, he captures drama and experience with what he calls the “humanist impulse” of photography.
A Chicago-based artist these days, Bey’s work is currently featured both in “Harlem, U.S.A.” at the Art Institute of Chicago and in “Picturing People” at the Renaissance Society. On Sunday May 13th, Bey spoke about his life and work to a packed lecture hall at the University of Chicago. He cited Coltrane as his “ epiphany moment as an artist” and Hendrix as his “radical reinvention.” He talked about his first encounter with photography’s narrative power at a 1969 Met exhibit, “Harlem on My Mind.” The exhibit was a collection of photography, film, and records that sought to tell the story of 20th century African American life. He was so inspired by the exhibit’s powerful narratives at the age of sixteen that he bought a camera, took to the Harlem street photography beat, and opened his first exhibition in 1979.
Bey strives to create work that engages in a dialogue with the viewer. Whether he is documenting a place as iconic as Harlem, or a face as boundlessly relevant as Charita’s, he is sparking thought, igniting a conversation through the frontal gaze. Still, he concedes that referring to his early work as “the Harlem photos” does have “a kind of weight to it.” Though these portraits capture so much more than the subject’s race, class, and neighborhood, they can still be distilled down to a title like “Harlem, U.S.A.”
Bey started his ongoing project, Strangers/Community, as an inquiry into the notion of community, a word he says “gets thrown around a lot.” He sought a way “to visualize a community” and “who speaks for whom.” A project that began in Atlanta at Emory University and has since travelled to Hyde Park, this series poses two strangers who are part of the same community side-by-side.
The Hyde Park portraits feature a diverse range of subjects photographed in University of Chicago locations like Mansueto Library and Ida Noyes Hall. But there’s something almost sterile about the Hyde Park photos. They’re a portrait of the University community, not the surrounding neighborhood, and they feel corporate. The settings of Booth and Mansueto cast the subjects in a washed out light, and positioned on a stage of linear metallic forms.
One of the most striking portraits in the series is titled “Paula Beigelson and Shirley Sims. Emory University, Atlanta, 2010.” A young white woman with grey-blue eyes and pearl earrings sits next to an older black woman in the kind of blue collared shirt you might associate with custodial staff. They sit in a room full of whitewashed pews arranged in two long rows, which appears to be in either a church or some kind of University hall. This portrait is distinctly Southern with bright white pews gleaming in rows behind them, and green lush light flooding in through a wide open window. But Bey tells you these things in the title. This is Georgia, this is Emory. He invites you to make an assumption about the subjects. You’re given hints at who they are in their clothing and body language and facial expressions and the very space that they occupy. These are strangers, part of the same community.
Unlike Bey’s Harlem photos and other street photographs, “Strangers/Community” poses the question of how “we”–subject, photographer, and viewer alike–imagine our communities and our nation. They examine how strangers, linked by their membership to a geographic community, interact with each other, with their setting, and with the photographer: but ultimately, they pose a question to the viewer himself.