When I approach works of art, I prefer to view them without the help of wall texts in order to see what the image, object, or installation will communicate on its own. Pondering the pairings, I was entranced by how much they revealed through their non-revealing expressions. Each pair of photographs is made up of a figure that appears to be in late middle age, and a younger figure that appears to still be in middle school. They are always grouped as man/boy and woman/girl throughout the show.
The backgrounds varied between two settings, one in a church or meeting hall and the other in a room with richly detailed wall decoration that is blurred out by the shallow depth of field. Importantly, the background only changed between pairings, and not within them. This unity of setting ties the images together in a solid way and enables us to concentrate on the people gazing directly out at us.
At first I thought that the figures could be related to each other – mother and daughter, father and son – but that turned out to not be the case. They were obviously not images of the same person at different ages because of the consistent contemporary clothing and hair styles. Beyond that, no extraneous clues were provided in the images to reveal who the sitters are, what their lives are like, or why they were chosen. But, that did not concern me.
The expressions that Dawoud Bey captures on the faces of his sitters tell us about aspects of their personalities and the culture they come from. Some faces are relaxed, revealing their vulnerability and openness to being seen by us, while others are harder, putting forward a mask to hide their feelings behind. Some of the images capture that fleeting moment when the sitter’s guard is half down, revealing a complex expression of weary openness and softened armor.
Juxtaposed to one another, I found that the younger figures more often had their facial armor on, sternly guarded against the prying eye of the camera and the viewer. The adult sitters, however, were more relaxed, seemingly comfortable, and open in their expressions, the result of a lifetime of experience in their skins. The dynamic subtleties of the individual images, and in their pairings, engaged me in a way that kept me looking for quite some time, unlike much of contemporary photographic portraiture. I wanted to know who these people are, where they are from, and what their lives are like.
After a long look, I walked over to the wall text and discovered the weighty conceptual underpinnings of these photographs. On September 15, 1963 four black girls were killed in a church bombing carried out by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, Alabama. It is one of the most tragic and harrowing events of the civil rights movement. Later that day, two black boys were also killed in separate, but race related, incidents of violence.
Dawoud Bey began visiting Birmingham in 2005 to learn about its history and current state, and eventually began making art about that history. In 2012, at the invitation of the Birmingham Museum of Art, and with the 50th anniversary of the bombing occurring the following year, Bey began this project with the idea of photographing boys and girls who were the same ages as those killed in 1963. He also sought out adults who were the same ages as the victims at the time of the incident, capturing images that remind us that these six children would never live to see today.
The settings of the portraits are also significant to the history of the civil rights movement. One location is the Birmingham Art Museum. A segregated institution at the time of the bombing, the museum was only open to African Americans one day a week. The other location was Bethel Baptist Church, which occupied a central and vital place in the struggle for civil rights in the south.
Returning to the photographs, I saw them now both individually as people, as pairs, and as a group in a different light. In the older sitters, I now understood these men and women lived through that tragic day, remember its aftermath, and have carried those memories within them as part of the legacy from that intense period of struggle.
Looking at the boys and girls, I was at once reminded of those who perished, but I also realize that these children can never fully know the pain, suffering and struggle that their parents and grandparents went through during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s to achieve the social and political freedoms that they have today. They are the recipients of these gifts, but also the next generation of torch bearers in the struggle for greater equality.
As a body of work, I saw the images as a subtle and touching memorial to these events, and the lives of victims. Looking around at them, I was reminded of the Spike Lee documentary “4 little Girls”; a devastating film that reveals the full impact of the church bombing on the families and the larger community of Birmingham from the time of the incident up to the point it was filmed. The documentary is full of raw emotion that grabs the audience and makes them feel the pain the bombing caused.
Bey’s photographs are a stark contrast to this raw emotion. They handle this highly charged subject with a deftness that does not gloss over any of the impact of the bombing and other violence, but at the same time it honors the six fallen victims in a way that allows us to approach the subject matter and begin to investigate it.
On the whole, the strength of this body of work lies in the balance between the ideas and issues it tackles and in the execution of the images produced. What will make these photographs stand up against the test of time is that they capture our attention on their own, and do not rely heavily on the cultural knowledge of the viewer (or a lengthy wall text) to make the work engaging. While both elements are important, the balance of both in any work of art is key to it successfully having a long life out into the world on its own.
Dawoud Bey’s The Birmingham Project will be on view at Rena Bransten Gallery through October 19, 2013. 77 Geary Street, San Francisco, 94108; (415) 982 – 1807; Gallery Hours: Tues. – Fri. 10:30 – 5:30, Sat. 11 – 5. For more information about Dawoud Bey, CLICK HERE.