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Dawoud Bey Returns to Harlem With a New Photographic Approach

November 21, 2016

By Dzana Tsomondo

Born in Jamaica, Queens, Dawoud Bey has lived in Chicago since the late 1990s, but if Harlem were to consider naming honorary residents, the esteemed photographer and professor would be at the front of the line. His parents met in the upper Manhattan neighborhood, at St. John’s Baptist Church on 153rd street, and he often visited family there as a child. Harlem was where he began his career as an artist, with “Harlem, USA” (1975-79), a collection of black-and-white portraits of residents, which he first exhibited at the Studio Museum on Harlem’s 125th Street in 1979. Now, 40 years later, he has another series of photos about the area, “Harlem Redux,” which he’s exhibiting this fall at Chicago’s Stephen Daiter Gallery. It is a very different project about a very different Harlem, and Bey changed his visual approach, moving away from the formal portraiture for which he’s best known, depicting instead the physical changes to the historically black, middle-class neighborhood.

“Over the years I have continued to visit Harlem, and more recently I began to notice that it was becoming increasingly and more rapidly gentrified. Places that I knew well from having spent time in the community in the 1970s were disappearing, and the neighborhood was changing demographically,” Bey explains. He began to consider ways to revisit his first subject and capture this metamorphosis as it was happening.

A professor in the Photography Department at Columbia College Chicago, Bey began shooting the Harlem project in the spring of 2014, traveling there from Hyde Park for periods of a week to a month. But instead of focusing on the people, as he had with “Harlem, USA,” Bey turned his lens on the neighborhood’s changing physical landscape.

“The challenge was to make photographs of inanimate things that have some real meaning while finding a way to reinvent the possibilities for visualizing or picturing those things,” Bey told PDN in an email interview. “One of the biggest challenges was to make everything within the frame have some meaning in terms of the story about change that I wanted to tell.” An empty lot is something more when paired with the ominous secrecy of a fresh construction site, replete with forbidding signage. A blonde couple lost in the haze of a sun drenched side street; an idyllic expanse of green beyond a fence; the blurry view through a construction fence peephole—all take on an urgency in this context.

© Dawoud Bey

For his new series, Dawoud Bey returns to Harlem, where he made his earliest pictures, to photograph the rapid changes taking place there. “Clothes and Bag for Sale,” 2016. © Dawoud Bey

These juxtapositions reflect a Harlem in flux, its history, present and future colliding in ways that would have been unimaginable just 20 years ago. Bey saw all this as he walked the streets for two years, trying to capture these points of intersection: The historic Lenox Lounge shuttered, with its windows unceremoniously papered over; the increasing presence of tourists at the Sunday services in the churches of his youth. Bey recalls attempting to photograph the famous Renaissance Ballroom at 138th Street and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, only to arrive and find the building had been razed, not a trace remaining.

“One day, walking up the hill on West 145th Street, I was startled to come to a newly erected apartment tower that had a white gloved doorman standing out front. I’ve seen plenty of white gloved doormen in front of buildings on Park Avenue on the Upper East Side, but never in Harlem,” Bey says.

The large-scale color photographs in “Harlem Redux” are a deliberate stylistic departure for an artist known for his portraiture. Since the late 1980s, Bey had worked exclusively with large-format 4×5, shot from a tripod. Seeking mobility and speed for this project, he switched to a Mamiya 7 II, medium-format rangefinder camera. This allowed him to keep using film, and produced negatives big enough for large-scale prints.

© Dawoud Bey

“West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue,” 2016.© Dawoud Bey

“Stepping out of the deliberate way in which I had been working for so many years was a refreshing experience,” Bey explains. “Over the past 40 years I’ve gotten increasingly comfortable with making work that is not necessarily confined to any one kind of picture-making strategy. I think that kind of fluidity comes with age.”

That openness characterized Bey’s approach to “Harlem Redux.” Rather than beginning with a conceptual framework, as he usually does, he developed his visual language as the project progress. The photo editing he did guided him the next time he went to work in Harlem. “We all develop habits of working and seeing that we have to periodically free ourselves from if we want to remain a part of a vital and ongoing conversation,” he explains.

This project is intended to be part of a dialogue, as well as a document—a series of “visual poems” through which Bey can capture a neighborhood’s transition—to what he admits is still unknown. There are layers of memory, both communal and personal within “Harlem, Redux,” not the least of which is Bey’s first work, which itself was a reaction to the 1969 “Harlem On My Mind” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Looking at the earlier Harlem photographs, I am acutely aware that Harlem itself is a very different place, and that I am—after 40 years of making photographs—a very different person and a very different kind of photographer,” he says.

Even after two years documenting it, he doesn’t quite know what to think of his suddenly unfamiliar subject. But perhaps that’s because as it shifts and sheds, there isn’t yet a “new Harlem” but instead a historic neighborhood in some state of transformation, hidden in a chrysalis.

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