'An American Project': For Decades, Dawoud Bey Has Chronicled Black Life : The Picture Show Bey has spent more than 40 years documenting Black Americans, from Harlem to Louisiana. The first museum retrospective of his work is now touring the country.
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'An American Project': For Decades, Dawoud Bey Has Chronicled Black Life

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'An American Project': For Decades, Dawoud Bey Has Chronicled Black Life

'An American Project': For Decades, Dawoud Bey Has Chronicled Black Life

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NOEL KING, HOST:

For more than 40 years, Dawoud Bey has been photographing Black American life and winning accolades along the way. A retrospective of his work is touring the country. It's now at the High Museum of American Art in Atlanta. Here's reporter Karen Michel.

KAREN MICHEL, BYLINE: Dawoud Bey's photographs are, like the man, large and both complex in their many gradations of meaning and direct. There are images of teenagers staring at the camera accompanied by texts they've written, words less revealing than the statements made by their postures and clothing. Young lovers in the park - their embrace and gazes daring the viewer to question their connection. Bey, who's 68 and wears hearing aids, says it's not the faces we should be looking at. It's the hands.

DAWOUD BEY: Hands are very important. They are expressive. They are a part of each of our idiosyncratic, expressive vocabulary. And to me, they are one of the things that makes an individual who they are in the performance of themself.

MICHEL: Performance is a key word here. Bey doesn't consider his work strictly documentary in the traditional sense. He's more an interpreter, a director. He'll pose his subjects, sometimes accessorize them and other times remind them of a gesture.

BEY: The photographs are very much made. I don't necessarily need people to think that when they look at the photograph. I just want them to believe the experience of the thing that they're looking at.

MICHEL: The experience of being Black in America. Growing up in Queens, Bey hadn't seen people like him on the walls of a museum until he was a teenager. Bey sees his work as a corrective.

BEY: I like to think of myself as a white box artist who makes work about nonwhite box things. I like to bring those things into spaces where folks don't necessarily think that's what they will encounter.

MICHEL: Bey wanted to be a musician and drummer, but he had been given his late godfather's 35 millimeter camera and soon got serious about photography. His inspiration was the late Roy DeCarava, the first Black photographer to receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, specifically to make images of the under-documented as he told me in 1996.

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ROY DECARAVA: There was this big hole. There were no Black images of dignity, of beautiful Black people. So I tried to fill it. But that's not what I wanted to do. What I wanted to do was I wanted to find - within the Black community itself, I was looking for humanity, looking for people. These are people.

MICHEL: DeCarava shot in black and white, and so does Dawoud Bey, primarily. Corey Keller is co-curator of the Bey retrospective.

COREY KELLER: There are not many photographers who have coaxed that much nuance and that much expression out of that dark end of the spectrum in photography like DeCarava did. And that was really important to Dawoud in his work.

MICHEL: As a result, the people in Bey's photographs take on greater substance and presence. The 2012 series, "The Birmingham Project," is his response to the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church. The photographer pairs images - one of a woman who would be the age of a victim, had she lived, next to that of a young girl, the age of one who died.

BEY: During the time that I was making the work for "The Birmingham Project" was the same moment Trayvon Martin was killed in Florida. I was acutely aware that I was making work about the past but that the past was also very present.

MICHEL: The final series in the retrospective shows work Bey did in 2017. The title is a riff on a line in a poem by Langston Hughes - "Night Coming Tenderly, Black." The location is Ohio; the subject, the underground railroad. There are no people here. There are houses, picket fences, fields and forests.

BEY: I was thinking about this narrative of the Black subject - the unseen Black subject in this case - a fugitive slave moving through the darkness of night. And that darkness of night being the kind of Black space that would lead to liberation.

MICHEL: Bey says his ability to capture Black history and life has its roots in another of his artistic inspirations - John Coltrane.

BEY: I think my background in music is what allows me to feel confident improvising in situations, not knowing what's going to happen but having a clear sense of the parameters.

MICHEL: Dawoud Bey says Coltrane showed him early on the responsibility of being an artist, of sharing something that's larger than himself. For NPR News, I'm Karen Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN COLTRANE QUARTET'S "c")

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