Perusing the four-decade retrospective of his work at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, photographer Dawoud Bey pointed to a recent series of dark, intricately textured landscapes and said, “I figured out how to make work about places, not faces.”
Recently in The City to open the exhibition, organized by SFMOMA and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Bey, 66, said though he almost always is “facing forward,” it was a “wonderful, unnerving moment” to see the through-line that connects his work going back to 1975.
Curated by Corey Keller of SFMOMA and Elisabeth Sherman of the Whitney, “Dawoud Bey: An American Project” features some 80 works, wide-ranging in scale, color and concept, but uniformly compelling.
The earliest images from the 1970s are sensitive, straightforward, black-and-white portraits he took on the streets of his hometown Harlem, of people, he said, who gave him the feeling “that they were present.”
That first project by the young, self-taught photographer was influenced by his 1969 visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see “Harlem On My Mind,” a show that raised controversy for not including works by black artists.
But for the teen Bey, it was “quite a revelation” because it was the “first time photos of African Americans could be seen in a museum.” He said it marked “the beginning of my own ambition to make photos about what I knew.”
Through the years, his portraits took on different, more expansive formats.
“An American Project” includes gorgeous, large-scale, up-close, warmly colored Polaroids, as well as an evocative series focusing on faces, and thoughts, of high-school students (a group he feels has been under- and misrepresented). In addition to taking their pictures, Bey asked the youngsters to describe themselves; their revealing responses appear on wall text next to the portraits.
Perhaps the show’s most moving portraits are in “The Birmingham Project,” a 2012 series commemorating the black children who died in the racially-motivated 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Alabama in 1963.
Considering the question, “How does one visualize the past in the contemporary moment?” Bey created portrait diptychs, juxtaposing photos he took in Alabama in 2012 of children who were the same age as those murdered by white supremacists in 1963 with pictures of adults at the age the youngsters would be now if they hadn’t been killed. Not just about the faces, the portraits powerfully capture a sense of absence, loss and lost opportunities.
The show’s most recent images, from 2018’s “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” — a project intended to depict the experience of being a slave on a journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad — are dramatically different, and perhaps more powerful.
From a distance, the dark images don’t register. But up close, Bey’s richly textured landscapes — pictures of houses, trees and water in northeastern Ohio, a few presumable “stations” on the Underground Railroad, although the exact locations are unknown — resemble beautiful, intricate tapestries.
Bey created the delicate images by shooting the photographs during the daytime, then using complex printing techniques inspired by Harlem photographer Ray DeCarava, who was known for exploring blackness in his work.
Bey said, “I wanted to make photos from the vantage point of someone moving through northeastern Ohio escaping enslavement, and reimagine, within reason, what the landscape may have been.”
Naming the project after a line from Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations,” Bey added, “Blackness was a tender place; the black subject was moving toward liberation.”
IF YOU GO
Dawoud Bey: An American Project
Where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, third floor, 151 Third St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except closed Wednesdays and to 9 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays); through May 25
Tickets: $19 to $25; free for 18 and younger
Contact: (415) 357-4000, sfmoma.org