One September day in 1985 in Syracuse, a young girl slowly tears a bus ticket as sunlight glistens across her afro. The curiosity and conviction in her returned gaze is so great that even her mother glances over. Small, profound moments like these give pause amidst history, appearing throughout Dawoud Bey’s forty-five-year retrospective An American Project at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. Bey’s practice has long been guided by patience with feeling as it flickers; in his hands, portraiture conveys contradiction—diffident joy, resistant sorrow—and tells the truth.
His latest body of work, Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017), consists of landscapes along the Underground Railroad, devoid of people. But they were once there. Bey has paid attention to place since the beginning, titling his first series Harlem, U.S.A. (1975-1979)—understanding that mecca of brilliant, unmitigated Blackness to be larger than the sum of its parts. A similar synecdoche occurs through the eight bodies of work in the exhibition: this is about Black culture, which means it’s about America. In a 1976 photograph, local barber Deas McNeil proudly props a shined oxford atop a chrome footrest in his shop, while in 1978 three women lean on a parade barricade, well assured that their furs, tassels, and jewelry surpass the occasion.
There is a precise composition to Bey’s early portraits. Children play and fill out a wide sidewalk; strangers waiting for the bus inadvertently align; a woman grasps a tent revival rope sloping out from the bottom left corner. These pictures are built like Garry Winogrand’s jigsaws of the street, save their rattled restlessness—Bey’s subjects are more at ease, trusting perhaps. His Small Camera Street Photos made in residence at Light Work in Syracuse in 1985 are among his best works, enhanced by a beautiful, dividing command of light and shadow across countenances. Two Boys at a Handball Court (1985) has the added gleam of a chain-link moiré, angled and oscillating into grain behind their bright white tees—a humble nod to the elder Roy DeCarava’s refracting silver fence, shot just two years earlier.
Though Bey is known for the earnest, unembellished content of his portraiture, his experiments with technique through the years are also notable. In 1988, he switched to a tripod-mounted 4 x 5 camera to slow down, and talk to his fellow Brooklyn residents for his Street Portraits. Using Polaroid Type 55 film allowed him to peel off an instant print for the subject as well, saving a fine-grained negative for later. The resultant photographs, enlarged to 41 1/8 by 50 1/8 inch inkjet prints for An American Project, are still bound by corrosion, making them appear slightly inset and drawing viewers in. Type 55, now discontinued, came in grey packages replete with developer bubbles—an uneven pull through the film holder’s rollers, as well as the peeling apart of the positive and the negative, is what marks this process and gives Bey’s prints their gritty, distinct frames. A blistered trail down the right side of A Girl with School Medals, Brooklyn, NY (1988) enhances her cool. She’s leaning on a fence the same way the boy in front of the Loews movie theater in Harlem in 1976 is, nonchalant—a bit put on, with all the charming impatience of trying to appear older than you are.
In his subsequent Polaroids studio portraits, Bey furthers his consideration of the photograph’s edges—their multipanel compositions remind me of the stops and starts of getting acquainted in conversation. Oneika II (1996) shows one half of her face looking down, placid—adjacent to the other half a moment later, closer up. One hand is raised to her cheek in deliberation, while the other rests on the baby swelling under her paisley tunic. Bey’s Polaroids capture emotions in facets, mapping them out continuously.
Curated by Corey Keller at SFMoMA and Elisabeth Sherman at the Whitney, An American Project is now in its second iteration at the High, presented by Sarah Kennel; it opens in New York on April 17. In San Francisco, the retrospective led in with a series of big Street Portraits ; in Atlanta, it starts small, with a row of gelatin silver prints from Harlem, U.S.A. What’s consistent, and important, is that the exhibition is well-edited—not too many photographs, with ample space in between. The chronology is not rigid either, and viewers can follow Bey’s eye, noting how he departs from or returns to certain compositions or densities.
Perhaps the most striking segue happens when walking from Harlem, U.S.A. to Harlem Redux (2014-2016). Bey’s pivot to landscape is marked by a subtle transition, from considering emotion contained within to considering emotion that hovers without, floats in the air. How does it feel to move through Harlem, noticing details of displacement? Change is sometimes blatantly juxtaposed in Harlem Redux—a beauty parlor with sun-faded posters of girls’ braids next to a vacant lot, a man typing on the patio of a Senegalese patisserie — but such is the experience of someone who’s lived there their whole life, or come back to realize certain personal landmarks in the neighborhood have gone. The landscape feels as abrupt as having a neighborhood suddenly made unfamiliar, then taken from you.
Places change and it can be unbelievable, but the larger question Bey is asking is how history changes after it happens. How does our relation to, our perception of past events—in this case, the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing and the Underground Railroad—change? Does it grow more profound, or does it harden and desensitize? For The Birmingham Project (2012), Bey made diptychs of children and adults, placing a subject the same age as the victims next to someone fifty years older, someone they might have become if they survived. The premise is simple—Bey never over-conceptualizes—and thus the work hits hard. From a distance, Maxine Adams seems to bear a small smirk in her double portrait with Amelia Maxwell, whose bangs just brush her left eye. Yet up close Adams’s eyes are lucid, and little dashes of white near the bottom of her irises suggest a light watering. Impressions near her nose bridge could be the marks of glasses, and her lips are tightly pressed. Bey’s portraits start to unfold the longer you spend with the people in them.
The Birmingham Project asks the impossible question of how one begins to handle trauma, or for Black children, what age they should be taught it. History, unfortunately, as reprimand—that rending moment at the end of Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death when a father scolds his crying boy to practice flattening himself against the wall. The separation of Bey’s portraits here is key, the gap relaying the brunt of processing on one’s own, then coming together through a connective history. I wonder if the children and the adults know each other, wonder how they care for each other, wonder what they might want to say to each other. Night Coming Tenderly, Black is a study in adjustment. Nearly four by five feet, these crepuscular panoramas subsume viewers in their monochrome. Untitled #24 (At Lake Erie) registers slowly, as you realize what’s off is that there are no shadows. Foliage flattens, and the clearing reveals itself to be the destination, the lake almost at a standstill.
I wonder if Bey sees all the details of his photographs from the get-go—moments in waiting, ready to burst with delight or melancholy when the eye catches them. The stretched belt hole of a man on his way to the cleaners; a young cook waiting for a bus transfer, his jacket flap dragged down by the weight of its snap buttons. I wonder what Bey says to his subjects, if anything — perhaps for him seeing is a sort of sensing, knowing. In any case, the result is something like complete empathy.
Co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, Dawoud Bey: An American Project is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta through March 14, 2021.
Disclaimer: Elisabeth Sherman, who served as co-curator of An American Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art, is a member of Burnaway’s Board of Directors. Editorial decisions on coverage and consideration are made completely independently of advertising or board relationships.