EYE CANDY

Photographer Dawoud Bey Makes the Past Feel Present

Dawoud Bey, A Boy in Front of the Loew's 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem, NY from Harlem, U.S.A.,...
Courtesy of ollection of the artist; courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

To Dawoud Bey, photography isn’t just a métier or hobby: It’s an act of political responsibility. Perhaps that’s because the 68-year-old New Yorker got started in the midst of the civil rights movement of the late 1960s, after inheriting a camera from his grandfather and simply stepping out onto the street. He soon turned the ordinary into the extraordinary: Many of his subjects are waiting for the bus or hanging around after school or church. Like his early influences Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks, Bey is one of the few photographers who has been able to fully capture Harlem, which was the subject of his first solo show at the Studio Museum four years into his career. Whether elders in their Sunday best uptown or couples embracing in Brooklyn, Bey portrays his subjects with warmth and dignity. What makes them political is simply their existence, presenting Black people as complex human beings. The retrospective “Dawoud Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October, is a testament to his photographs’ apparent timelessness; while his 2016 series Harlem Redux documents the neighborhood’s transformations, some photos could very well go back decades.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Four Children at Lenox Avenue, Harlem, NY, 1977. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Three Women at a Parade, Harlem, NY, from Harlem, U.S.A., 1978. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Two Girls at Lady D's, Harlem, NY from Harlem, U.S.A., c. 1976. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Fresh Coons and Wild Rabbits, Harlem, NY from Harlem, U.S.A., 1975. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, A Young Man with a Bus Transfer, Syracuse, NY, 1985. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Four Teenagers After Church Service, Syracuse, NY, 1985. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, A Young Woman Waiting for the Bus, Syracuse, NY, 1985. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, A Woman and Three Children, Syracuse, NY, 1985. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, Combing Hair, Syracuse, NY, 1986. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, A Couple in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY, 1990. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, A Girl with a Knife Nosepin, Brooklyn, NY, 1990. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey.

Dawoud Bey, A Woman at Fulton Street and Washington Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 1988. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.

Courtesy of Sean Kelly Gallery, New York; Stephen Daiter Gallery, Chicago; and Rena Bransten Gallery, San Francisco. © Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey, A Boy Eating a Foxy Pop, Brooklyn, NY, 1988. Featured in the exhibition “Dawould Bey: An American Project,” on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art through October 3, 2021.