Spotlight on the Collection: Dawoud Bey

In 2014, the Blanton Museum of Art acquired two works by the Chicago-based photographer, Dawoud Bey. Many might know Dawoud Bey from his recent inclusion in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which prominently featured his 2007 portrait of Barack Obama. The portrait, taken in the Senator’s Chicago home, is modest in size and intimate: it highlights the humanity of the man who would soon become President of the United States. This is one of Bey’s trademarks—his ability to create a sense of enhanced familiarity with the person in the picture. The same respect and attention he gives to the man who would go on to become the leader of the free world is the same care he gives to all of his subjects.

Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey (b. 1953, New York; lives and works in Chicago)
Oris, 1996
Four Polacolor ER photographs, each 30 x 22 inches
Installed 60 x 44 inches

When Bey first started photographing the streets of Harlem in 1975 with his 35mm Argus C3 camera, he would spend time sitting in neighborhood barbershops, listening to the customers, and getting to know people in the area. He made a point of sharing the photographs he made with his sitters. [1] This exchange was important to him:

I began to want a more sustained contact with the people I was photographing. I also wanted the process to be more reciprocal, and create dialogue that allowed the subject to both confirm my intentions and gain possession of the image I was making of them. [2]

In the mid 1980s, Bey shifted to working with a 4-by-5 inch Polaroid. This new format allowed the artist to instantly provide his subjects with an image while he retained the negative, and gives them the opportunity to voice their opinions the moment their likeness is taken. For Bey, it was an ideal way to combat the inherent hierarchy of photography, which traditionally privileges the photographer or the person in possession of the image. [3]

In 1991, Bey started using a 20-by-24-inch format camera. The two new works in the Blanton’s collection, Kenosha I and Oris, both from 1996, are portraits of individuals each comprised of four unique 20-by-24-inch photographs. Bey created these portraits using one of Polaroid’s largest cameras. The 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera stands five-feet tall, three-and-a-half-feet wide and weighs over 200 pounds. Only five of these cameras exist in the world today.[4]

Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey (b. 1953, New York; lives and works in Chicago)
Kenosha I, 1996
Four Polacolor ER photographs, each 30 x 22 inches
Installed 60 x 44 inches

Since the camera is not very portable, Bey’s practice underwent a dramatic shift from working in the streets and meeting people randomly to a studio practice that entails a more sustained relationship with his sitters. Formal concerns (an interest in producing a larger image, and working in color versus black and white photography), were important motivations for Bey’s change in camera but there were other crucial reasons for this shift. According to the artist:

After making portraits in the streets, I found that the reading of the photograph is largely influenced by environment. The environment becomes our key to figuring out who this person is, but it’s not necessarily a true reading. I wanted to put the person in the foreground and force an engagement that was free of the encoded readings suggested by the environment. [5]

Sitting for a Bey Polaroid portrait often takes as much as four hours. [6] This is because Bey enjoys the process of collaborating with each sitter and the large format camera requires long exposures and processing time. According to the artist, he tries not to give his sitters too much direction, preferring that they relax and find a private space in front of the camera. [7] These large scale Polaroids allow Bey to work with lush colors and to highlight the individuality of his sitters. In the case of both Kenosha I and Oris, Bey focuses on teenagers, a group of people he has always enjoyed photographing:

My interest in young people has to do with the fact that they are arbiters of style in the community; their appearance speaks strongly to how a community of people defines themselves at a particular historical moment. I want that sense of specific time to be present in the photographs. [8]

These photographs lavish attention on African American teenagers, a group historically excluded from the genre of portraiture, and often represented in very negative ways in the media. [9] Bey says, “I wanted the subjects…to be possessed of the power to look, to assert oneself, to meet the gaze of the viewer. Having had so much taken from them, I want my subjects to reclaim their right to look, to see, and to be seen.” [10]

Kenosha I will be on view in the 2nd floor collection galleries through January 2015.
The Blanton would like to thank UT alumnus Barry Hammer, and his wife, Lorri, for generously donating these works to the museum.

Amethyst Beaver is a curatorial assistant in modern and contemporary art at the Blanton.

[1] Jock Reynolds, “An Interview with Dawoud Bey,” in Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995, ed. Rob Dewy (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995): 102, 105.
[2] Ibid., 106.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Kellie Jones, “Dawoud Bey: Portraits in the Theater of Desire,” in Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995, ed. Rob Dewy (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995): 42. For more information on the Polaroid 20-by-24-inch camera see 20×24 Polaroid (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1982); Susan L. Brown, “Sandi Fellman: Against the Grain,” Camera Arts, September 1982: 64-79.
[5] Reynolds, “An Interview with Dawoud Bey,” 110.
[6] Ibid., 111.
[7] Ibid., 107.
[8] Ibid., 106.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 107.

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