May 14, 2012

Survey of the Hyde Park-based artist includes new works and a catalogue.

In the late 1980s, Dawoud Bey lived in Brooklyn and regularly made photographs of his neighbors. In the street, he would toss a focusing cloth over his head and set up a tripod-mounted 4x5-inch view camera equipped with a Polaroid back to make portraits of passersby, a process that required patience on both ends. Subjects got a Polaroid picture, and Bey kept the 4x5-inch instant negatives for himself.

These brief interactions became as fundamental to his art as anything he would print afterwards. “It made me look more closely at the community I was living in,” says Bey, who hasn’t stopped exploring the concept since. The theme of relationship to community dominates Dawoud Bey: Picturing People, which opened May 13 at the Renaissance Society, a contemporary art museum at the University of Chicago. The exhibition, which is being slated to travel, will be accompanied by a catalogue including new scholarly essays.

Showcasing the past three decades of Bey’s career, the exhibit begins with his most recent work and winds its way back toward a series of street photos created in New York in the 1980s. Chronologically, it picks up where Harlem, USA, currently at the Art Institute of Chicago, leaves off — a fact that is “particularly gratifying,” says Bey. “It’s a chance to take stock of your work in the most physically present way, as opposed to looking at it on a screen or in books.”

For months, Bey worked around the clock to narrow his immense collection for the show.

Providing a sneak peak of the exhibition, Bey makes his way through the gallery, pausing in front of his Brooklyn Street Portraits series. Suddenly, he leans in to peer more closely at an image of a young man in a letter jacket standing in front of Bey’s old Brooklyn home. It’s one of several on display for the first time, and seeing it awakens old memories.

“I saw him every day,” Bey says. Gesturing to other photographs, he adds: “She lived in my building … I used to see him on the corner all the time.” Bey made hundreds of photographs during this period but could only show them in limited numbers. “Now I’m going back and looking at my own work with fresh eyes,” he says.

Renaissance Society director Susanne Ghez approached Bey about doing a show a year ago and collaborated closely with him in selecting the photos. “I’m trying to show the ways in which he’s moved within portraitures,” she says, “from the streets, into the studio, and then back out into the streets again.”

Born in 1953, Bey grew up in Queens and began taking photos as a teenager with a 35mm camera from his godmother. A former Guggenheim and NEA fellow, he is currently a professor of art at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998. His photographs have been exhibited extensively both in this country and in Europe.

In this exhibit, visitors are greeted with 40x48-inch color photos from Strangers/Community, a new chapter in Bey’s most recent series which features portraits of individuals in Hyde Park, home to both the UChicago and the artist. The smaller black and white photographs represent his older work — the earliest a 1981 photo of a pizza parlor in Long Island City. At this stage Bey was working more spontaneously.

Then, in search of a “more sustained relationship” with subjects, he began using a larger camera and having people gaze directly into the lens. The resulting size and clarity of these images enables him to highlight fleeting gestures and features, producing a heightened sense of intimacy.

Also on display: Bey’s signature large-format color Polaroids, made at Columbia and other institutions during residencies in the U.S. and London in the 1990s. Following two decades of street work, Bey was ready to move his practice indoors. He began using a rare, 250-pound 20x24 Polaroid camera to make his now-famous photos of students, some of which are in the permanent collection at the Museum of Contemporary Photography. (A catalogue of Bey’s photos is in the works.)

“What’s interesting is that [these series] occurred during the advent of digital photography,” says Renaissance Society associate curator Hamza Walker, who has been a subject in Bey’s past work. “You see the shift from the small black and white practice in late 1970s to large-scale photos.” While Bey doesn’t use a digital camera, developments in scanning technology and ink jet printing made his more recent work possible.

In his latest photos, Bey intentionally pairs two strangers from the same community. He credits the Renaissance Society and diversity programs at the University of Chicago for helping him locate his subjects. Three university locations — the Booth School of Business, Ida Noyes Hall, and the Mansueto Library — are represented, as well.

Rudy Nimocks, Director of Community Partnerships at the University’s Office of Civic Engagement, helped Bey find potential locations and then found himself in one of the photos. At 82, he appears seated next to a female undergrad several generations his junior. “Our paths probably wouldn’t have [otherwise] crossed,” he says.

And that’s just the point. Bey began with snapshots of individuals and experimented with different arrangements to find similarly contrasting pairings. “I want viewers to respond to the work,” Bey says. “How they choose to respond is entirely up to them.”

Dawoud Bey: Picturing People runs through June 24. Darby English, Associate Professor of Art History at UChicago, will lead a gallery tour on Saturday, May 26, at noon.

By Clare Curley