Q&A with Dawoud Bey: "Harlem, U.S.A." | Bleader

Q&A with Dawoud Bey: "Harlem, U.S.A."



Dawoud Bey
  • Jason Smikle
  • Dawoud Bey
Nearly 40 years ago, photographer Dawoud Bey was just beginning his first project in Harlem, New York. Bey, who now teaches at Columbia College, grew up in Queens and spent his high school years playing in garage bands. In 1969, when he was 16, he made his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the exhibit “Harlem on My Mind”—a visit that marked the beginning of Bey’s photographic inquiry. A few years later he took his own camera to the Harlem streets. Bey’s Harlem photographs are alarmingly intimate. His subjects often look directly into the camera, collapsing the invisible boundary between subject and viewer. His lens is rigorous, meaningful, and captures an almost spiritual quality in each subject.

While Bey’s Harlem pictures are his first, his notions of self-presentation and portraiture were already at work. Bey’s exhibit “Harlem, U.S.A.” premiered at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Today, for the first time since 1979, the Art Institute remounts the show in its entirety. Bey speaks about the show tonight at 6 PM in the Art Institute's Rubloff Auditorium (111 S. Michigan); the event is full, but you can register for the wait list here.

What is it like having your first show, “Harlem, U.S.A.,” remounted?

It’s a very unique opportunity. It’s been really interesting for me, as an artist, having a major exhibition of that work remounted some 36 years after I first showed those pictures. I was a very young artist when I started making those pictures. But I had a very clear sense of what I wanted to do and I was very committed. It just reminds me of how young I was and how far I’ve come.

What were you like as a young artist?

When I started, I hadn’t even been to art school. I barely knew there was such a thing as art school.

It really began when I went to see “Harlem on my Mind” at the Metropolitan Museum at 16. I was very persistent about finding my way to the museum. I was actually on the wrong train because I didn’t know the difference between local and express. I finally got off and walked to the museum. The fact that I didn’t give up, that I was determined to get to the MET, was the same kind of persistence I had when making the photographs in Harlem. I knew it wasn’t as simple as pointing a camera at someone in the streets of Harlem. I didn’t have a foundation and I knew I needed to create one for myself.

Who were the artists who first influenced you?

The first photographer whose work struck me was James Van Der Zee. His photos were made in Harlem and black people were in the pictures. Later, one of the first exhibitions that I went to see in 1976 was Mike Disfarmer’s show at the Museum of Modern Art. Something resonated with me.

This process was a very solitary thing for me. There was no one in my neighborhood who I could ask, “Hey Tyrone, want to got to 57th Street and check out some Richard Avedon?” It didn’t even occur to me, I’d just go. That’s how I began to get a sense of the history of the medium and what kinds of pictures I might want to make.

I wanted to make something of my own that resonated with me as much as those pictures did. I wanted to make something as compelling. That became my challenge. So I began to find my way.

Did you eventually find a community of peers?

Yes. As I continued to work, I began to meet other photographers, and particularly other black photographers. When I started, I didn’t even know there was such a thing. I didn’t have that initial validation in terms of being black and being a photographer. My community really started at the Studio Museum in Harlem. That’s where I met other black folks involved in art making, cultural production, discourse around being black and making art. And that became my real community of support. And it became less of a solitary community at the point. I realized there were a lot more people like me. I just had to find them.

How does “Harlem U.S.A.” reflect 1970s Harlem? How does the show reflect you as a young artist?

“Harlem U.S.A.” was about two moments. It was about a particular moment in the evolution of Harlem in which there were clearly visible traces of Harlem’s past. A black man walking around in a bowler hat—that picture I took of him could’ve been made in 1932. It has an almost timeless quality.

It was also about my wanting to contribute to the very long conversation about Harlem as articulated in a wide-range writing and visual culture. It was also a moment in my own evolution as an artist. I was trying to make work that was different from the ways Harlem had been represented in photographs.

What did you learn while photographing the Harlem community?

I started off wanting to make a "positive" image of Harlem. Which I came to quickly realize is an overly simplistic way of thinking about it. I ended up making a collective picture of what Harlem actually presented to me rather than validate something I thought I knew about the community.

That’s when I realized the need to both have an idea to motivate the work and the openness to be responsive to what your subject is giving you. I think all creative work is about the way in which your idea, the one that motivates you, meets up against the actual situation. The actual situation is usually different than the idea. And the work takes place when you’re able to respond to that.

Before you became a professional photographer, you were a musician. Have the two practices overlapped at all?

Yes, I played professionally for a little while. I playing in jazz bands, funk bands, and studied traditional West African music. My background as a musician has been very helpful in terms of my ability to go into any situation and improvise. I know that I can spontaneously figure something out. The conceptual idea of improvising—as a practical trope—is learning to respond to what’s happening in the moment.

Are there musicians whose work you are particularly drawn to?

John Coltrane. Coltrane said, “I want to use my art as a force for good.” He wanted to make meaningful work and live a meaningful life. He was the first artist that made me conscious of how a particular art form can be transformative. And how art can always have integrity.

What do you imagine would be different if you started your career today?

It would be very different. When I was starting seriously, the only black artist who had any serious recognition at that point was Romare Bearden. He’d had a show at the Museum of Modern Art. There were others, but the public recognition didn’t really exist. This of course is one of the reasons for the formation of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Which has been hugely important to constructing a support network for black artists and young black artists.

Black curators in the late 1970s and 1980s, most notably Deborah Willis and Kellie Jones, were the early supporters of my work. They were initially the only supporters of black artists who weren’t considered mainstream.

I think it’s important for people to realize that the current situation with any number of black artists being shown in the mainstream, there’s a long degree of struggle. It didn’t just happen because someone decided it was interesting. It’s all a part of a historical continuum.

What about working in the digital age?

I’m still trying to reconcile those things for myself, particularly within my art practice. My work is still predicated on a kind of camera and process that slows time down momentarily. The prevalence of all these different technologies create a rapid acceleration of time. The amount of time it takes to get information is pretty much instantaneous. So for me, it’s really important to slow time down. It’s important to give my heightened attention to the viewer and to give the viewer a momentary quiet space in which to regard the camera.