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.”
A young white girl talks about how she frequently is asked about being a minority in a black school; a black boy recounts the anger he feels living in a violent situation and how he tries to deal with it. “Michael” in a red T-shirt looks at us with a straightforward gaze, without humor, without rage, a pick in his Afro — one of the most amazing portraits in a exhibit filled with them.
In his latest series, Bey put “couples” together, photographs that round out the exhibit at MOCA. Many of them were set in Hyde Park in Chicago (Bey has been teaching at Columbia College in that city since 1998). Hyde Park, home to University of Chicago and tucked into one of the largest black communities in the United States, the Southside of Chicago, is also known as one of the most segregated communities. That is why Bey sat duos next to each other — people who likely had never encountered one another while living only blocks away — for this series of images.
“I was looking at the complex idea of community. What makes it. So I negotiated an introduction to each other” while posing people from very different backgrounds together. The end result is black and white America sharing a space, with the comfort zone still negotiable.
Bey aims his camera at the intricate underpinnings that make up the realities of class, race and age, with an eye that is gentle and cutting at the same time.
Tying the past and the present into a new project, Bey will unveil his latest work later in the fall, for the 50th anniversary of the Birmingham, Ala. bombings in 1963, when four little black girls were blown up in the basement of a Baptist church during the height of racial rage in the deep South.
“I was just wondering what I could do in response to that.” What he did was visit Alabama and find girls who are about the same age as the victims were, and then picked out women who would have been their age had they lived. Portraits of four girls ages 11 to 14, and women 61 to 64 make up one part of the series. When Bey discovered that two African-American boys had been shot in Birmingham later that same day, he also photographed boys ages 13 and 16, and men ages 66 and 69.
They are one more example of why Bey’s body of work stands out, and deserve a visit during the run of this retrospective. They are not just fascinating to look at because of their aesthetic quality, but because the pictures tell such a rich story about the interior and exterior lives of people around us.