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Dawoud Bey: Harlem, U.S.A.

Dawoud Bey

Harlem, U.S.A.

Now through September 9th at the Art Institute of Chicago

Dawoud Bey’s newest exhibition is actually a revisiting of his first show, consisting of thirty 5 x 7 black and white, 35 mm photographs taken when the artist visited Harlem, New York between the years 1975-1979. When Bey started the series, he was just 21 years old, new to the world of photography, and somewhat unfamiliar with the area, yet the artist was determined to create a series of photos depicting that community. He recognized that Harlem had a long and cultured history and he wanted to contribute to the historical conversation. He was not a native, though he did have a connection to the area through his parents who were both Harlem born. It is interesting to note that lack of firsthand connection since there is a definite sense of intimacy in the photographs. They appear as if the artist had a close kinship with all his subjects, which was not always true.

The young artist would roam the streets looking for interesting people to shoot, often having to garner the courage to approach strangers and ask for permission. Bey saw the challenge in photography as being able to create a momentary relationship with his subjects. He wisely recognized at a young age that everyone acts differently in front of a camera and it was his job as photographer to shape the experience and to determine what happens. He wanted to create natural images, ones that gave a sense of the real lives of subjects. While working, the artist formed a series of self-induced rules for art making. Among them is his decision not to crop any of his images. Instead, Bey believed in composing the photo entirely through his viewfinder and therefore planned his compositions immediately upon meeting his subject, often times only taking two exposures. To the artist, that was the true difficulty of the discipline.

Harlem, U.S.A.’s success has a lot to do with timing- finding an intriguing subject when the lighting was right and the location was visually interesting. It is amazing to consider the strong use of shadows that are ever present in the series of photographs were noticed by the artist’s keen eye on-the-spot as opposed to being planned and arranged. Immediately upon viewing the exhibition viewers will recognize that while the show may be called Harlem, U.S.A., the location isn’t the focus. Instead, it is the city’s inhabitants that are at the center of the show. Old and young, men and women, the impeccably dressed and the street clothed peer out from the 30+ year-old photos. Some of subjects look straight at the camera, meeting our gaze, while others are turned away appearing to be unaware that their photo is being taken. Bey introduces viewers to the local barbers, church ladies, musicians, and youth who populate the neighborhood. While viewers may have never set foot in Harlem or even been alive when these photos were taken, there is a sense of familiarity in the photos, a reminder of a youth spent playing outside or of friendly seniors who still revel in being well-dressed whenever the occasion allows.

This is a wonderful exhibition to view firsthand. The images, though over three decades old (including five new images not present in the first show), have a timeless sensibility to them. The way Dawoud Bey has captured his subjects makes them seem relatable, appearing as if the viewer may have encountered them at some time or at least someone just like them. While Dawoud Bey set out to shoot a place, the result was a series of works showing individuals.

Prior to viewing Harlem, U.S.A., make sure to journey downstairs and check out the photography exhibition Bey has curated from the museum’s collection. He has gathered a series of photographs that inspired him as a young artist to pursue photography as his means of expression. Next to each photo, including images by James Van der Zee and Walker Evans, Bey has included a synopsis of his thoughts upon viewing that particular photo for the first time. This small selection of photos and the included descriptions take guests through the revisited thoughts of a young Bey and also showcases how artists influence one another. It was thoughtful planning on the part of the Art Institute to display both exhibitions simultaneously, allowing guests to see firsthand the connective link between the influence and the potential result. Be sure to stop by before both shows close.

Some of the information for this article was gathered at a teacher exhibition tour led by Dawoud Bey at the Art Institute of Chicago on Monday, July 9, 2012.

Melissa Gumbs

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