In one photograph from Dawoud Bey, part of the retrospective of the Chicago-based photographer at MOCA, Picturing People, two boys stare out at us. They are neither frowning nor smiling — they are simply gazing — but we view them in fragmented form. The portrait is divided into six panels in two rows of three, making the image disorienting, striking and dramatic, —just like most of the work in the exhibit.
We never really see the entirety of a person, in a photograph or sitting in front of them, Bey explains during his visit to Miami for the installation and opening of this show, which debuted at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society museum last summer.
The internationally renowned 59-year-old, who started his career by shooting black-and-white street profiles in Harlem in the 1970s, says that we look at the world in a fragmented way, so why not in photographs? “When I look at your hands, I am not looking at your face, I can only see parts at a time,” he says. We can see glimpses of what is going on inside a person, but we can’t know it all, he says.
Although photographs are ultimately static images, Bey’s deft presentation of his subjects makes them come alive. We do seem to be seeing a little of their interiors lives, through expressions, hand positioning, eye contact that he captures with his lens.
Another mesmerizing piece is a bifurcated image of a young man, the top panel of his almost emotionless face, the bottom of his hand, so beautifully shot you want to reach out and touch it — it’s both sculpturally exquisite and very human.
These are part of a colored Polaroid series he shot in his studio in the 1990s. Because the studio setting is inherently artificial, Bey would tinker around, wait for his subjects to relax, drape their arms across the chair, cross their legs, in a manner that they would do when they were unobserved and alone, and then catch those moments.
As stunning as these diptychs and triptychs are, Queen’s native Bey made his name with man-on-the-street photos that resulted in his first solo at New York’s Studio Museum, Harlem USA, in 1979. Bey’s method was already apparent in these early works; while those in front of his camera were not posing in a studio, he would go back and shoot people he encountered several times, to try and catch an essence of them, while not invading their space.
He clearly succeeded. He became increasingly interested in capturing the psychological lives of people along with the communities in which they lived. These black-and-whites make up the first part of the exhibit at MOCA.
For the most part, the earlier works in the show are of African Americans. There are images of a somewhat sullen boy sucking on a Foxy pop; a teenager with his baseball cap and jacket with a sober, questioning look on his face; and several men and women in their distinctive hats and passionless expressions. Asked why none of his subjects smile, Bey simply says, “that’s the way we look when we are with ourselves, isn’t it?”
Bey would become increasingly interested in photographing young people, of all races. One room in the exhibit is dedicated to portraits of the teenagers he shot in high schools across the country, which are accompanied by texts. For the most part Bey has let the expressions and gestures depicted in his photography tell the story, but in this case he wanted these kids to have an extra voice. For this series called “Class Pictures,’’ there are plaques with powerful accounts of the outsider life so many young people feel they live. “I wanted an historical snapshot of this time in America,” Bey says. “I also wanted their self-representation of this time in their own writing, to add to the physical.”