Capturing Harlem: New book on the street photography of Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey: Harlem U.S.A.

Dawoud Bey: Harlem U.S.A.

Recently published from Yale, Dawoud Bey: Harlem U.S.A. is the first book of the photographer’s vintage Harlem photographs from 1975–1978, a body of work that launched Bey’s career. Today we take a look at this new photography book, which accompanies an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The photographer Dawoud Bey  (born 1953) is probably best known for his large-scale colour photographs of marginalised groups in contemporary America, and his community-focused and collaborative approach to his art. A new exhibition and accompanying catalogue from the Art Institute of Chicago gets to the root of Bey’s unique body of work, by publishing for the first time, the photographs that launched his career.

Bey’s Harlem

In 1979 Bey held his first solo exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem, exhibiting 25 photographs in a collection entitled Harlem, U.S.A. Bey had been in residence at Studio Museum for one year, and he had made the surrounding neighborhood a subject of study since 1975. Though raised in Queens, Bey and his family had roots in Harlem, and it was a youthful visit to the exhibition Harlem on My Mind at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1969, that had given Bey his determination to become an artist.

The exhibition Harlem, U.S.A., which has never been shown complete since the Studio Museum exhibition, will surprise those familiar with Bey’s later work, as it appears so manifestly different. The prints are not large, not in color, and do not come in multiple parts; the subjects are not all adolescents, and they do not “sit” for the artist but were found by him on the street. And yet all these photographs are sensitively composed and radiate an emphasis on the calm and dignity that would become hallmarks of Bey’s approach.

Like the highly influential German portrait and documentary photographer August Sander, Bey wanted to show the “types” of Harlem’s residents: the barber, the patrician, the church ladies, the hip youth. He was searching for a way to combine the specificity of photography, which only knows how to record details, with the diversity of Harlem, a neighborhood as varied as any in the country. Most importantly, he wanted to do this without courting stereotypes.

The exhibition

Thanks to the efforts of patrons of the museum, the complete vintage set of Harlem, U.S.A. has been acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago for the exhibition (which runs until September 9 2012). A further five photographs from that time, never before printed or exhibited, will also be donated by Bey to the museum this fall. Complementing this exhibition are a selection of permanent collection works in Gallery 10 curated by Bey as well as a career survey of Bey’s work presented at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago.

The exhibition catalogue

Beautifully published as a complete set for the first time, Dawoud Bey: Harlem U.S.A. also includes the five previously unpublished photographs from the same period. Bey’s vintage images are given new context in an essay by emerging African-American writer Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, who undertook her own fascinating study of the neighbourhood Harlem Is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America in 2011. This handsome book is edited by Matthew S. Witkovsky who is the museum’s Curator of Photography, and is the editor of Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life. With faithful duotone reproductions, Witkovsky’s book provides a wonderful opportunity to revisit a classic portfolio of images that still resonate in today’s culture.

Dawoud Bey: Harlem U.S.A. is available now from Yale University Press.

Take a look at more titles from the Art Institute of Chicago.

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