Dawoud Bey: An American Project

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. 

A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, 1988
A Girl With School Medals, Brooklyn, 1988

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. 

Don Sledge and Moses Austin from the Birmingham Project, 2012

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.  

Omar, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA., 2005
Jordan, School of the Arts, San Francisco, CA., 2006

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

About Eleanor Foa Dienstag (28 Articles)
Eleanor Foa Dienstag is a veteran author, journalist, photo-journalist and award-winning corporate writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's, the New Republic, the New York Observer, Ms., Travel & Leisure, and many other websites and publications. Eleanor is the author of three books. Her most recent, available on Amazon and Centro Primo Levi is MIXED MESSAGES: Reflections on an Italian Jewish Family and Exile. It is a multi-layered memoir about Eleanor’s personal journey, her father’s exile from Fascist Italy and the Foa Family journey, whose Italian-Jewish roots go back to the 1500s in northern Italy where her ancestors were famous printers. WHITHER THOU GOEST: The Story of an Uprooted Wife, also a memoir, was acclaimed by Business Week for its insights into corporate life. Her third book, In Good Company: 125 Years At The Heinz Table, offered a unique view of a quintessential American company. Eleanor served as staff speechwriter to the Chairman and CEO of American Express. In 1983, she founded Eleanor Foa Associates (www.eleanorfoa.com). It provides a wide variety of corporate writing and marketing services. Eleanor is past president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA), received speechwriting awards from IABC, and was awarded literary residencies at Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (VCCA). She resides in Manhattan.