There is no voyeuristic thrill underlying Dawoud Bey’s 50-some portraits in his 30-year career survey at The Renaissance Society. Although he started as a street photographer—a practice that often delivers uncanny encounters with strange faces—Bey consistently creates sincere and respectful portraits. These men and women, of many races and ages, are not just faces in a crowd; they are the faces of a community. Bey’s straightforward approach deflects the many topical philosophies that have been thrust on portrait photography over the years, such that his images are not post-racial, nor cinematic, nor mired in questions of photographic truth. If the images espouse a political position or a psychological reality, it is the sitter’s own contribution. Bey is a humanist to the bone.
Bey is a master of his technique, and it’s clearly an honor to sit for him. What must he say to loosen a guarded face or clear an anxious head? Especially in his large-format, luscious Polaroid transfer prints from the late 1990s, one can sense the special but fleeting intimacy among the sitter, camera, and artist—and know that Bey captured the exact moment right before self-consciousness re-moistened its lips. The sitters are all quite aware that their images will be exhibited in a gallery or museum, but do not be fooled by their self-possessed faces. Instead, look to their hands, which are often posed in a complicated geometry of expression and emotion, all the more powerful because they are so ambiguous.
If Bey’s portraits remind us that we are all at the center of our own universe, you might think his new double portraits would shake that construction. They don’t. In the series titled “Strangers/Community,” Bey positions two residents from the same neighborhood (here, Hyde Park in Chicago, which is Bey’s home and also the site of the exhibition) in a temporary but formalized relationship. They come together for the moment but retain their firm independence.
Published in Photograph (June, 2012)