In parallel to his exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York, Dawoud Bey publishes Street Portraits (Mack), which he dedicates to his son, Ramon. This is a very upbeat book, without a shadow of nostalgia. The idea is, rather than to play with temporality, to show what ties together seventy strangers encountered in the state of New York (Brooklyn, Rochester, Amityville) and in Washington, DC, between 1988 and 1991. They are all African Americans, just like the photographer; they are his “soul brothers,” to borrow the phrase from the writer Chester Himes, an intimate of Harlem.
He was born David Edward Smikle in Queens, on November 25, 1953, but his family history starts in Harlem, where his parents first met. He currently lives in Chicago. Formerly a musician (fan of John Coltrane, of his “spirituality”), he became a photographer and, since 1998, has taught photography at Columbia College in Chicago, just a few steps from the Museum of Contemporary Photography.
There are three photographers, all Harlem natives, whom Bey cites as his formative influence: James Van der Zee (1886–1983), Gordon Parks (1912–2006), and Roy DeCarava (1919–2009). Dawoud Bey has followed in their footsteps and, like his predecessors who had seen the “Harlem Renaissance” first hand (1918–1937), he has emphasized the power of photography to break down barriers, “transform stereotypes, bring communities together, and forge dialogue.”
Reconnecting with his family roots, Bey created a series called “Harlem USA” (1975–1979) which, without being a Parks-style reportage, subtly depicted the daily life of the New York neighborhood. Street Portraits, while focusing on individuality, creates connections with strangers, making us feel as if we were about to strike up a conversation. With a few exceptions where he names his subjects, Bey describes them in his captions, zooming in on their attitude or on a prop, or simply indicating the precise location where the picture was taken. The most remarkable thing might be the exchange that took place before the shooting, as a result of which the models are completely at ease and willing to open up, as if they felt protected. In contrast to customary street portraits taken on the sly, which, often infused with violence, are a clear product of an exercise of power, Bey’s images appear peaceful, free of anxiety.
Dawoud Bey insists he seeks “to create a visual representation of interiority.” This is more than a statement of intent: one of this artist’s greatest achievements is to have given meaning to his portraits of Black Americans, letting his subjects stand on their own. Bey is true to Roy DeCarava’s commitment, the first African American to have been awarded, in 1952, the Guggenheim Fellowship. He said: “I want to show the strength, the wisdom, the dignity of the Negro people. Not the famous and the well known, but the unknown and the unnamed, thus revealing the roots from which springs the greatness of all human beings.”
By Brigitte Ollier
Brigitte Ollier is a journalist based in Paris. She has worked for over thirty years for the newspaper Libération, where she created the column “Photographie.” She is the author of several books about a few memorable photographers.
Dawoud Bey, Street Portraits, with an essay by Greg Tate, Mack, 120 pp., €45. Available here.
“Dawoud Bey: An American Project”, Whitney Museum of American Art, April 17 to October 3, 2021. More information here.