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An American Project Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

25 February 2020

The irony was not lost on us. We had just gotten three new product releases to comb through and publish when it was time to leave for the press preview of Dawoud Bey's An American Project at SFMOMA. Stay or go?

We went. And as we rolled through the Muni Metro tunnel on our way downtown, we realized why. Photography isn't about cameras. It's about pictures.

In fact, we spent the morning refreshingly free of tool, tips and technique talk as we listened to Corey Keller, curator of photography at SMFOMA, interview Bey and then wandered through the extensive retrospective. Twice.

There are no photographs without cameras, of course. The 35mm of his youth. The large-scale 20x24 Polaroid. A view camera. But the brands and models are not cited, eclipsed not just by the film format but by the work itself.

Nor is much said about the technology behind the prints themselves. The object labels identify traditional gelatin silver prints as well as pigmented inkjet prints. And the Polaroids are dye diffusion transfer prints. Chromogenic prints are the traditional color prints. But here too, the story is the pictures not the gear.

Welcome as the morning deviation was, we did get the new products specs up later in the day. But Dawoud Bey was on our mind the whole time.


An American Project is a retrospective of Bey's work over four decades focusing on what SFMOMA director Neal Benezra called "underrepresented communities from all walks of life." The exhibit was co-organized by SFMOMA and the Whitney by co-curators Corey Keller of SFMOMA and Elisabeth Sherman, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Interview. Corey Keller (l) and Dawoud Bey.

The press preview began with an insightful half-hour interview of Bey by Keller.

Keller's first question was to ask Bey how he feels about having a retrospective as he continues to work very hard.

He thinks about it a minute and admits it's an interesting question. It's a wonderful moment, he admits but quickly adds it's an unnerving moment.

His focus is on the work he's been doing during the last two years and looking forward to his next project. But the retrospective has required him to stop and look back.

The wonderful thing about a retrospective, he observeS, is that it gives people a chance to see how he has progressed from one project to the next.

The unnerving part of it is stopping to reflect. He's determined not to stop, he says, sufficiently aware of his own history and the thread that ties his work together. He's constantly asking questions in his work and moving forward by answering them.

So how does it feel? "It's a wonderfully unnerving moment," he sums it up.

Keller asks him about the first moment he appreciated the camera's potential.

He got his first camera from his godmother when he was 15 years old, he says. But he couldn't have possibly imagined where it would lead.

It all began for him in 1969, the year after he got that camera, when he went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the exhibit Harlem on My Mind. Seeing that exhibition was his first individual encounter with the museum. Not a school field trip but a solo flight.

It was a revelation, he says. And that revelation was that the photographs of ordinary African-Americans could be seen in a museum. Which meant he might be able to present his own work there one day.

That set the trajectory for what would be his career, he adds.

He admits he had actually gone to the museum to see the demonstration against the exhibit. But on the day he went, there was no protest so, not wanting to waste the trip, he decided to go inside the museum to see the show.

Keller asked him to talk about the importance to him of displaying his work in the community it depicts.

That goes back to the controversy about Harlem on My Mind, he says. In the climate of 1969, exhibiting photos of Harlem outside the community was an issue. Harlem had not had anything to say about the exhibition itself either.

His first exhibition Harlem U.S.A. was, he made sure, shown first in Harlem. And he has followed that practice with his other exhibitions.

How his work is exhibited is one of the issues he thinks about for each project, he tells Keller. It's an important component.

He encountered the works of everyone from Evans to DeCarava in a museum and he wants to continue the historical conversation in that setting with his own work, even if it introduces subjects not typically shown in museums and is even neglected by them.

Keller then asks Bey to take a moment to talk about Night Coming Tenderly, Black, in which he moves away portraits into landscapes.

He begins his reflection with a discussion of his work on the Birmingham project commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Baptist church that killed innocent children.

The challenge was visualizing the past. You can't go back to the past. And you can't just make a photo of the place where something happened. It isn't enough, he says.

How do you make something that allows the past to resonate in the present moment? That was the problem he put to himself.

He made several trips to Birmingham trying to work that out. He made portraits of African-Americans the age the kids who were murdered would have been to show what had been lost. And then thought of pairing them in dyptichs with portraits of children the age those children were when they had been killed.

That was his solution.

So in 2016 when he was asked if he'd create something for Cleveland's triennial, he knew he would have to figure out some piece of history about Cleveland that would let him continue his quest to visualize the past.

His research showed him Cleveland played a role in the Underground Railroad. No one knows where it was, though. He found references to a few sites related to the Underground Railroad, stations that may have provided respite on the way, as it were. They were "presumed to be known" but could no longer be verified.

How could he depict these places?

He imagined moving through this landscape under cover of darkness toward these refuges. He shot landscapes from the vantage point of someone on the move northward by foot to Lake Erie and on to Canada.

Roy DeCarava's dark prints inspired him by showing how to connect the emotion of the subject to its presentation. And the title of the project comes from the last lines of a Langston Hughes poem, he points out.


The exhibition includes work from several of Bey's major series. With the exception of the 35mm work, they are all large prints.

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We present above our walk-through of the exhibition at SFMOMA. But below we present images provided by the museum for further study.

Harlem U.S.A.

Shot with a 35mm camera, this project was a response to Harlem on My Mind. He worked on the project from 1975 to 1978, taking portraits and street scenes of the neighborhood where his parents met in church and he was raised.

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It opened in the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979 when Bey was 26. The exhibition also included street photography Bey made in Syracuse, N.Y.

Harlem Redux

Unhappy with the furtive nature of street photography, Bey moved to a 3x5 camera and Polaroid Type 55 black-and-white film to shoot more formal street portraits of his subjects with their knowing engagement.

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These portraits were taken between 2014 and 2017 in Harlem 40 years after the original Harlem project. It included color images of the neighborhood showing its transformation into a more gentrified place.


By 1991 Bey wanted to continue his formal portrait work in a studio environment, "removing the social signifier of place from the photographs and situating the subjects in a neutral space where the entire narrative came to reside in their physical presence." He decided to use Polaroid's 20x24-inch view camera for the series.

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The series of large color portraits included both single-print portrait images and multi-panel portraits, some with more than one portrait. He also used it for his Class Pictures series.

Class Pictures

His Class Pictures project was inspired by the idea that teens were not being listened to. They too are large-scale Polaroid portraits but Bey invited the high school students to add a brief description to them, further elevating the role of the subject in relation to the photographer.

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He shot these portraits across the U.S. from 2003 to 2006, focusing on teens from various backgrounds to challenge teenage stereotypes.


The Birmingham project was created in 2012 to memorialize the victims of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

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To address the problem on photographing a subject in the past, Bey conjured up sets of paired photographs showing an adult the age the children would have been in 2012 alongside a photo of a child the age the children died.

They are shot in two locations. Half were made in Birmingham's Bethel Baptist Church and the other half in the Birmingham Museum of Art.

Bey also made a video of Birmingham to accompany the exhibit.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black

In 2017, Bey again tackled the problem of capturing the past with a camera. The subject was the Underground Railroad, of which little historical evidence remains.

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Inspired by the low key image of Roy DeCarava, Bey shot scenes in Ohio by day that he could print in very dark tones to represent what escaping slaves may have seen as they moved through the night to freedom.


We've let the images speak for themselves in this review of Bey's retrospective because we found them to be quite eloquent all on their own.

As we wandered from one large print to another in the gallery, we felt like we were meeting people in more than a superficial encounter. This was true of the first Harlem U.S.A. portraits through the Birmingham project.

It speaks to Bey's relationship to his subjects, his rapport with them. They were clearly themselves even when the portraits became less clandestine and more formal. Their faces were relaxed, their eyes bright, their souls idling smoothly.

On the streetcar home, we looked at our fellow passengers as if they were likely subjects of Bey's lens. "Underrepresented" stories of struggle and success. Heroes carrying heavy burdens. Clowns on a break. In every case, more than meets the eye.

It's to Bey's credit that these portraits themselves deliver more than meets the eye. And no wonder, then, that he has been able to bring the past to life in projects as profound as Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

An American Project will be on exhibit at SFMOMA through May 25 before traveling to Atlanta for the summer and going to the Whitney in New York City after that.

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