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.