Ever since his first days as a portraitist, shooting in the 70s mainly in the streets of poor or working-class New York neighborhoods, Dawoud Bey has been preoccupied with the ethical issues surrounding the act of photography. Uncomfortable with the feeling that street photographers are nothing but "muggers," Bey has always tried to share the experience with his subjects. After shooting in a shop or diner with his 35-millimeter camera, he'd return with prints to give to his subjects, but as often as not he'd be unable to locate them.
When he switched to a large format Polaroid camera and positive/negative film, the transactions became simpler. The huge camera made his intentions perfectly clear, and each shot gave him a print for his subject and a negative. Eventually he began working in a studio instead, a change of venue that dovetailed with his goal of bringing people of color out of the background of American life and into the foreground. The neutral setting heightens the emphasis on the subject and eliminates extraneous information that might contribute to preconceptions.
Bey remains mindful, he says, that historically portraiture has been reserved for the upper classes, and of the subtle controversy in urging his black subjects to gaze unflinchingly at the camera. He reminds us that not too long ago a black person could be killed for looking a white person in the eye.
Bey recently set up studios at Columbia College and Providence-Saint Mel High School and began photographing students there. He's also been teaching them about photography and trying to demystify his role as a professional artist, in hopes that some of them will explore their own creativity. An exhibit of the life-size color Polaroid prints opens next Friday, November 19, at Columbia's Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan; hours are 10 to 5 Monday through Friday and noon to 5 Saturday. is free. Next Thursday, November 18, at 6:30 Bey will give a public talk about his work in the college's Ferguson Theater. Admission is $5; Call 663-1600 for more info.