Since the beginning of his career, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953) has used his camera to depict communities and histories that have largely remained underrepresented or even unseen. This full-scale retrospective highlights the artist’s commitment over the course of his four-decade career to portraying the black subject and African-American history in a manner that is at once direct and poetic, and immediate and symbolic. The exhibition includes his tender and perceptive early portraits of Harlem residents, large-scale color Polaroids, and a series of collaborative word and image portraits of high school students, among others.
More recent projects have taken a historical turn: The Birmingham Project (2012) commemorates the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in a series of deeply affective portrait diptychs. Lately, Bey has turned to landscapes: Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2018) depicts, in deep shades of black and gray, the imagined experience of a fugitive slave moving along the Underground Railroad, marking a formal departure from the artist’s earlier work but considering the same existential questions about race, history, and the possibility of bearing witness through contemporary photography.
The exhibition is co-organized with the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.