BA Phot

on Photographing People and Communities

Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey,
on Photographing
People and Communities

Dawoud Bey

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Bey, D. (2019) on Photographing People and Communities. NY: Aperture

Dawoud Bey
b: 1953 Queens, NY
Guardian - Wikipedia

I thought this might be useful for I&P, which I am about to start, and it probably will.

Bey has built a career on making portraits and groups of portraits and he describes how his work has developed.

Dawoud Bey
Fig. 2
A boy in front of Loew's
125th Street Movie Theatre,
, 1976
© Dawoud Bey

Given a camera at 15 (around 1968) and drawn towards street and portrait photography, his politico-æsthetic sensibilities were aroused by the 1969 exhibition Harlem on my Mind at MoMA. The subjects were mostly African American, but that community was not involved in the organisation of the show and few of the photographers were of the community (Bey mentions one notable exception, James Van Der Zee). This was a time of rising political activism and the gallery was picketed: Bey came to realise the responsibilities of the portrait photographer in engaging with and understanding his subjects.

Dawoud Bey
Fig. 3
Deas McNeil, the Barber,
© Dawoud Bey

In 1975, after spending time learning about the area, Bey began photographing Harlem, a precinct adjacent to where he was brought up, using 35mm equipment. At this point he was photographing individuals in a contextual setting in B&W. Bey states that,

[U]ltimately what mattered was not the truth of the scene, as much as what you ended up with in the photograph. It's not the truth; it's a photograph. There's the life of the subject in the photograph, and then there's the life of the subject in the real world. They're related but they're not the same thing.
From that point on, I became most interested in describing the subjects through photographs, not worrying about whether I had directed them or not. I discourage my students from talking about photographing as "shooting" or "capturing" or "taking," because it's really about trying to figure out a way to describe with the camera, to make something. Bey (2019) p.29

Bey knew from his experience at MoMA that careful consideration should be given to the display of his Harlem pictures,

Whether an image exists in an institutional space. or on a printed page, on 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? Bey (2019) p.43

He progressed to a 4x5 view camera with the intention of making 'more formal portraits' (ibid p.46) with greater detail.

At first he printed 6x9 in. but later increased to 20x24 and 32x40. Part of this move was being invited to use the 20x24 Polaroid studio . Colour images and studio portraits thus became Bey's new medium (fig. 4). He liked to ask his subjects for one image looking at the camera and one looking away then chose which to exhibit. The next stage was to exhibit them as pairs (fig. 5). Then multiple segmented images (fig. 6). [The segmented pairs do not seem to fit in with the rest of his work displayed in the book which is straightforwardly representational.]

Dawoud Bey Dawoud Bey Dawoud Bey Dawoud Bey
4. Cheryl, New York, 1991
5. Alva, New York, 1992
6. A couple from Lawrence High, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1992
7. Sarah, Lawrence High School, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 2005
© Dawoud Bey

Applications and invitations for residencies gave Bey the access to a variety of students as subjects (now back to his 4x5) and he began o develop a series of themes for exhibition, such as Class Pictures, individual students posed in their classrooms. He comments on the setups for some of these images and notes,

As picture-makers, we try to load [the images] up with as much narrative content and meaning as we can so that they begin to speak, but there's always a bigger world that lies outside the frame. The photograph puts a frame around a small slice of time and speaks emblematically about the things outside the frame. The best that a photograph can do is to make a strong suggestion as to what lies beyond it. Bey (2019) p.88

Bey sought to venture beyond the frame by recording comments / statements from the subjects which were played on headphones at the exhibition. This had obvious limitations of application and so he resorted to the more traditional and more portable printed statements. And then put them in a book. He comments,

Text does not make a photograph more interesting; it's either an interesting photograph or it's not. Bey (2019) p.93

[I think that is arguable.]

Dawoud Bey
Fig. 8
Paula Biegelson and Shirley Sims,
Oxford, Georgia
, 2010
© Dawoud Bey

His next innovation was to photograph pairs of people, one older, one younger. The pairs were from the same community but not directly connected, for example, the school principal and the janitor. He noted that a symmetry of poses is not uncommon. [This is, perhaps, an idea in search of a subject. ]

Dawoud Bey
Fig. 9
Mary Parker and Caela Cowan,
Birmingham, Alabama,
© Dawoud Bey

[And then he finds a suitable subject.] The last project he mentions is visiting Birmingham, Alabama (scene of a racist church bombing and subsequent killings in 1963 which had greatly affected Bey (whose name was then David Smikle) at the time. He returned repeatedly to the city, learning about its history and seeking a project as his response to the bombing. He came up with pairs of images, one a child the same age as one of the 1963 victims, the other an adult the age that they would have been on the 50th anniversary of the bombing had they survived. The project was commissioned, advertised, volunteers chosen and paired.

Bey concludes the book with the heading, 'The most important thing is to make work that matters, to bring things into the world that have consequence' (p.123).

Wikipedia reports that, 'Photographers such as Dawoud Bey, Ellen Carey, Chuck Close, Elsa Dorfman, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, David Levinthal, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Rauschenberg, Joyce Tenneson, Jennifer Trausch, Andy Warhol, TJ Norris, and William Wegman have used this heavy (235 lb or 107 kg), wheeled-chassis camera'.

This does not accord with one of Bey's answers in Wolf's PhotoWork (2019). In reply to the question, 'what comes first for you: the idea for a project, or individual photographs that suggest a concept? Bey says, 'My work always begins with an idea, with something that I need to talk about. I take my photographs in order to provoke a conversation around those things I am invested in.'
Nevertheless, my view remains.


Bey, D. (2019) on Photographing People and Communities. NY: Aperture

Wikipedia (2020) Polaroid 20×24 camera [online]. Available from [Accessed 12 August 2020].

Wolf, S. (2019) Photo Work: forty photographers on process and practice. New York: Aperture Foundation

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Page created 11-Aug-2020 | Page updated 12-Aug-2020