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ATLANTA, Oct. 16, 2020 — For more than four decades, renowned photographer Dawoud Bey has created powerful and tender photographs that portray underrepresented communities and explore African American history. From portraits in Harlem and classic street photography to nocturnal landscapes and large-scale studio portraits, his works combine an ethical imperative with an unparalleled mastery of his medium. Coming this fall, the High Museum of Art will celebrate his important contributions to photography as the exclusive Southeast venue for “Dawoud Bey: An American Project” (Dec. 12, 2020-March 14, 2021), the artist’s first full career retrospective in 25 years.
Co-organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the exhibition will feature approximately 80 works that span the breadth of Bey’s career, from his earliest street portraits made in Harlem in the 1970s to his most recent series reimagining sites of the Underground Railroad (2017).
The High has enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with Bey, who was commissioned in 1996 for the Museum’s inaugural “Picturing the South” series, which asks noted photographers to turn their lens toward the American South. For his project, Bey collaborated with Atlanta high school students to create empathetic, larger-than-life portraits. Made with the monumental 20- by-24- inch Polaroid camera, these photographs explore the complexity of adolescence as a time of critical identity formation and expand the concept of portraiture. The High now holds more than 50 photographs by Bey, one of the most significant museum collections of his work.
“Bey’s portraits are remarkable for their keen sensitivity and for how they elicit and honor their subjects’ sense of self, which is partly an outcome of the artist’s collaborative practice,” remarked Sarah Kennel, the High’s Donald and Marilyn Keough Family curator of photography. “Given the museum’s long relationship with Bey and the strength of our holdings, we are thrilled to present this important retrospective. We look forward to sharing the artist’s photographs and his powerful and moving reflections on African American history and identity in their country with our visitors.”
Bey, born in 1953 in Queens, New York, began to develop an interest in photography as a teenager. He received his first camera as a gift from his godmother in 1968, and the next year, he saw the exhibition “Harlem on My Mind” at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Widely criticized for its failure to include significant numbers of artworks by African Americans, the exhibition’s representation of Black subjects nonetheless made an impression on Bey and inspired him to develop his own documentary project about Harlem in 1975. Since that time, he has worked primarily in portraiture, making tender, psychologically rich and direct portrayals, often in collaboration with his subjects. More recently, he has explored seminal moments in African American history through both portraiture and landscape. “Dawoud Bey: An American Project” will include work from the artist’s eight major series and is organized to reflect the development of Bey’s vision throughout his career and to highlight his enduring engagement with portraiture, place and history.
The exhibition closes with works from two of Bey’s most recent series exploring African American history and collective memory.
“The Birmingham Project,” created in 2012 as a commission from the Birmingham Museum of Art, memorializes the victims of the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, and its violent aftermath. The series features expressive portraits of children who are the same age as the bombing victims paired with photographs of adults who are the ages those children would have been in 2012 had they lived. The photographs, along with an accompanying video piece, are stirring reminders of the precious lives lost and foreground the enduring legacy of racism and violence against African Americans.
In 2017, Bey completed “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” a series of beautifully rendered and evocative images made in Ohio where the Underground Railroad once operated. As landscapes, the large black-and-white photographs mark a departure from the artist’s previous work, but they emphasize many of the same existential questions. The series, whose title is drawn from a Langston Hughes poem, conjures the spatial and sensory experience of an enslaved person’s escape to liberation as imagined by the artist. Shot by day but printed in deep shades of black and gray as if they were taken at night, these evocative and mysterious works explore blackness as both color and metaphor for race.“Dawoud Bey: An American Project” will be presented in the High’s Wieland Pavilion Lower Level.