Dawoud Bey: Seeing Deeply

Over the course of his career, photographer Dawoud Bey has consistently reexamined his methods and intentions. In the process, Bey, a 2017 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, has also radically revised our vision, as a comprehensive new monograph, Seeing Deeply, reveals. Raised in Jamaica, Queens, in 1953, Bey first became known in the mid to late 1970s for the series “Harlem, U.S.A.” In those images, and in subsequent works, black-and-white street portraits give everyday people pride of place in the frame. Barbers, shopkeepers, and churchgoers all seem glad to pose for Bey. In a portrait of a blues singer, we see a bit of rubble in the background; another photographer might have drawn our eye to this sign of urban decay, but Bey focuses on the man himself, the music in his face, and his stomping heel. Formally, the compositions had a political aim, too: His early subjects, most of whom are African American, are often at the middle of the images’ foreground, commanding respect—taking their rightful place, front and center.

Dawoud Bey, West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, Harlem, NY, 2016, ink-jet print, 40 × 48".
Dawoud Bey, West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, Harlem, NY, 2016, ink-jet print, 40 × 48".

Bey’s lifetime of sustained looking has also turned inward. By the late 1980s he had begun questioning the ethics and value of the “fleeting engagement” of street photography and the documentary feel of black-and-white pictures. He restlessly tried new approaches. As Rebecca Walker writes in one of the book’s fine essays, Bey’s photographs “interrogate what we mean by community, what we mean by stranger, what we mean by America.”

This sense of open-minded interest is one of his oeuvre’s defining traits. In his resonant 2013 series “The Birmingham Project,” Bey pairs two portraits in each diptych. On one side, we see present-day Birmingham, Alabama, children who are the same age as the victims of the 1963 church bombing and related shootings. On the other are city residents who are the same age the murdered girls and boys would have been if they had survived. As Bey explained to the New York Times, “I wanted to give tangible and palpable physical presence to the young people martyred that day.”

When Bey returned to Manhattan for his series “Harlem Redux” in the mid-2010s, his pictures astutely shifted emphasis. The shots rarely feature people, but when Bey does catch someone—kids and tourists, mostly—they are quickly moving past, are out of focus, or seem totally unaware of the photographer as they look at their phones. Here, Bey shows us a different kind of urban blight, as evidence of rapid gentrification suggests what has been lost since the “Harlem, U.S.A.” days. True to form, Bey is never didactic, instead illustrating these changes in the form of a question.