Dawoud Bey is a photographer of great style and humanity. As a Black photographer whose main focus for 40 years has been the lives of Black people – whether in New York, Chicago or The South — he has made a point of engaging with his subjects before making his images.
This is not traditional snap-and-run street photography “which privileges the photographer at the expense of the subject,” but what I would call street portraiture, often taken with a tripod mounted 4 x 5-inch format camera. The results, as seen in this beautiful and moving exhibition at the Whitney, are profound and memorable portraits of dignified individuals in dialogue with the artist. There is a trust between the photographer and his subjects that is palpable. It is one of the reasons – in addition to his technical mastery – that his portraits are so powerful.
The Birmingham Project commemorates the 50th anniversary of the horrific bombing by the Ku Klux Klan of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four Black girls and, on the same day, two Black boys. In his photographs, Bey pairs a child the same age as the victims with adults 50 years older, who would have been children when the bombing took place. It’s a stunning and moving series.
Class Pictures is another unusual project, this one focused on teenagers. Bey not only gives us their images but pairs them with self-reflections by the sitters themselves.
Dawoud Bey came of age during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Since then, he’s experimented with different cameras and different printing formats, but it’s clear that the through line to his work has been transmuting the trauma and rage of those early days into his poetic and heroic version of “Black Lives Matter.”
The exhibition, on two floors of The Whitney, runs through the summer to October. Don’t miss it.
Dawoud Bey: An American Project
Whitney Museum – April 17 to October 3, 2021
Advance Tickets Required
Photos by Eleanor For Dienstag
Top photo: Martina and Rhonda, Chicago, 1993