Thursday, December 19, 2019

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities

A Journey of Discovery and Relationship

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities
The Photography Workshop Series
Photographs and text by Dawoud Bey
Introduction by Brian Ulrich

Aperture Foundation
Dawoud Bey takes us through a journey that starts in Queens, NY, where he was raised, continues through Harlem with a handheld 35mm camera, a 4x5 on a tripod, a massive Polaroid (265 pounds, 20" x 24"), to color with the 4x5, to high schools and to Birmingham, AL. Along the way, he moves from New York to Chicago and Columbia College, where he has been teaching for twenty-two years. While the touchstones may be images and equipment, the real story is that of building community every step of the way, every day, working with his art, refining his skills, developing his message.

Take Time

He tells us, again and again, with grace and persistence, to take time. Time to know the place you want to work. Time to know the people and their stories. Take time to establish a relationship. Many relationships. To allow the work to unfold. And to be fully engaged that whole time.

Think Deeply

Think deeply about what you are doing. Look closely at all aspects of the image, at the entirety of the frame. What's in focus and what's not? How does that affect the viewer's experience? What can we see in the frame? What is suggested by how the subject presents themselves? How they are seen by the photographer?

Master the Medium

Dawoud Bey spent ten years with that massive Polaroid. He built on his early study of Rembrandt. He observed how the light illuminated his subjects and what the resulting images looked like. He worked with single individuals, with two or three people. Single images and multiple images. And then he took what he learned and used it in his further work, with different equipment, different projects.

Know Your Community

While Dawoud Bey is an African-American, he is from Queens, not Harlem, so making images on the streets of Harlem required that he get to know that community, those people. Early in the book there are images by others, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and James Van Der Zee. These photographs spoke to him as he began making pictures, they set the stage for his own work, and are a means for us to learn the importance of knowing our heritage as photographers, as humans with a past and present, living in a particular place and time.

Know Where Your Work Will Be Seen

Dawoud Bey learned the power of institutions early when he viewed Harlem on My Mind, an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1969). 

"Whether an image exists in an institutional space, or on a printed page, or social media, the context is an active and loaded site. Where the work is going to exist should always be part of the consideration in its making. What kind of conversation do you want the work to provoke?

"Thinking back to my early experience of witnessing the protests surrounding Harlem on My Mind at the Met, I knew the institutional space of the museum was not benign. It could be a site of protest and also play an important role within the community where it sits. This shaped my thinking about where I wanted my work to end up. I knew I wanted my photographs on the walls of a museum; it was never my intention for my work to be seen in magazines or newspapers.

"I knew that I wanted to present my Harlem USA work in Harlem. I wanted to break the tradition of making the photographs in one place and showing them somewhere else, which can convey varying degrees of otherness in regards to the subject. I didn't want there to be a separation between subject and audience. I also didn't want to preclude the work going out into the world, but I thought it was important that it be shown in Harlem first."
Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities, page 43

Build Community

Along the way, he built a community of other artists, of curators, of teachers and students, of the people he photographed. Personal connections that were nurtured across time and space. The work connected him to others and brought others to him. 

on Photographing People and Communities is a masterful telling of how Dawoud Bey has worked over many years. The time spans are staggering in our era of instant response and instant gratification. The Birmingham series took six years before he felt ready to make the first image. There was then six months of daily work to create the 32 portraits of 16 pairs. 
Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2012

Beyond This Book

Dawoud Bey ends with 18 books: Recommended Reading/Looking.

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