Back in the 1970s, when he was first starting out, the photographer and Columbia College professor Dawoud Bey spent a lot of time looking: at people on the street, at portraits in museums and galleries, at magazines with pictures by legends like Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
“Out of all that looking, I began to realize I was always drawn back to photographs of people,” he says. “I wanted to make photographs that resonated in the same way, but using subjects I cared about.” That meant large-scale natural portraits of real people, not models, locked in a dead-on gaze with the camera—confident, occasionally defiant images capable of disarming even the most guarded observer.
Forty years and numerous grants (including from the Guggenheim and the NEA) later, Bey is enjoying three concurrent exhibitions in Chicago devoted to his work. On May 2, Harlem, USA, a remounting of his first foray into street portraiture, which has not been seen in its entirety since 1979, opens at the Art Institute. Hanging alongside is a companion show, curated by Bey, of images by those photographers—Avedon and Penn, as well as Roy DeCarava and Walker Evans—who inspired him early on. Meanwhile, The Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago presents Picturing People, a survey that picks up where the Art Institute’s leaves off.
A concerted effort by the two institutions, the shows provide a comprehensive look at Bey’s career to date. While Harlem, USA captures African American residents of that storied New York enclave, selections from 2007’s Class Pictures, on view at The Renaissance Society, present teens of all races photographed in high schools across the country.
Also at The Renaissance Society are photos from Bey’s latest project, Strangers/Communities, in which two people who live in the same area but don’t know each other and whose paths typically wouldn’t cross—a Buddhist monk, say, and a doctoral student—share a single frame. Taking the idea of community one step further, Bey shot the series in Hyde Park and Woodlawn, within walking distance of the gallery where the images would be exhibited.
With work in the permanent collections of the Art Institute, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Bey finds his own community ever expanding. And yet the portrait continues to hold his gaze. “I want viewers to feel they are not merely looking at a photograph but are having the experience of another human being,” Bey says. His deft touch allows us to feel his presence behind the camera, too.
GO Harlem, USA runs May 2 to September 9 at the Art Institute; the companion exhibition, Selections from the Permanent Collection by Dawoud Bey, is on view starting April 14. For info, artic.edu/aic. Picturing People runs May 13 to June 24 at The Renaissance Society; for info, renaissancesociety.org.