Review by Gerhard Clausing •
This photobook is a 40-year retrospective of the work of the distinguished photographer Dawoud Bey, who is also a well-received Professor of Art at Columbia College in Chicago. Others before him have contributed perspectives on some of the same US communities, especially James Van Der Zee, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Roy DeCarava; some of these predecessors of his left us with interesting insights into individuals and their surroundings, especially Harlem and other NYC neighborhoods. Over time there has been a significant shift, from a “social documentary” point of view (perhaps as previously expected peering in from the outside) to a more late 20th century and contemporary perspective, a more egalitarian position, that treats the individuals photographed as persons whose lives and creative contributions are to be shared on an equal level.
Bey is certainly a master of peering into the individual’s psyche, while also a master of light and shadow as he crafts his portraits with artistic acumen and compassion. Page after page in this photobook delights us with portraits that are forthright, direct, and honest. We feel we can almost touch the individuals shown; most of them make direct eye contact and share their pride and hope – it is clear that the rapport between the photographer and the individuals photographed was very strong, and this directness also creates a bond between those shown and the viewer.
This large and beautifully printed photobook is divided into nine major sections, with excellent introductory essays that shed light on each particular phase of Bey’s work, as well as illuminating commentary about various related contexts:
2 Small camera work
3 Polaroid street work
4 Large-size Polaroid portraits (20 x24 inch)
5 Class pictures
6 Character project
7 Stranger / Community
8 The Birmingham Project
9 Harlem redux
Bey’s work features all those photographed as distinct individuals belonging to interesting groups, across various strata of society. There are also some landscapes and cityscapes to present the character of communities. The care this photographer shows with his students is demonstrated in section 5; each of the portraits is accompanied by a brief text that gives us further insights about the individual and his or her connections to others. Section 7 is also quite intriguing – Bey created staged portraits of sets of two different strangers from the same environment that might otherwise not have met, and thus raises a very crucial issue of our time: how united or how divided do we feel or are we really, and most important, what are we moving toward (see image 7 below)?
Some of the other portraits make use of a collage technique, which makes us curious about a particular individual’s other moments and moods, and hints at the individual as more multi-faceted than a single image can show. It is a great testament to Bey that even the Acknowledgments section in the back makes for interesting reading, as it allows us to see his method of collaboration with all who were involved.
This retrospective is much more than that: it is a magnificent testament to what can be shown about people’s pride and hope, and in an exemplary yet subtle manner seems to posit the idea that all us individuals, no matter what our background and heritage may be, are interested in building a better future and would benefit from collaboration. This photobook is destined to become a classic!
Photographer: Dawoud Bey (born in Queens, New York City; lives in Chicago, Illinois)
Publisher: University of Texas Press, Austin, TX; © 2018
Essays: Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, David Travis, Hilton Als, Jacqueline Terrassa, Rebecca Walker, Maurice Berger, and Leigh Raiford
Clothbound hardcover with illustrated dust jacket; 400 pages, paginated, with 129 color and 136 black-and-white photographs; 11 ½ x 12 ¼ inches; printed in Germany by Dr. Cantz’sche Druckerei Medien GmbH