Dawoud Bey is known as one of the greatest portraiture photographers of our time, a pioneer of street photography who first came to prominence with the series, “Harlem, U.S.A,” which richly captured the faces and attitudes of the residents of the iconic New York City neighborhood. A recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship grant, Bey's distinctive career was honored three years ago with a major retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
“Dawoud Bey: Elegy,” a much-anticipated exhibition starting at Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on Nov. 18, takes the eye of the 69-year-old Chicago resident (who turns 70 this month) to another space entirely: landscapes, specifically locations of historical importance to African-Americans. “It's tremendous to have someone of his stature presented here,” says Valerie Cassel Oliver, the Sydney and Frances Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at VMFA. “It's a real shift from what people think about his work.”
“Elegy” consists of three separate photo series (42 total images) that explore Bey's recent concentration, “a trilogy,” Oliver says. “These are sites that are paramount to telling the African-American story and, in telling that story, showing the history of the beginnings of America.”
“In This Here Place,” from 2019, showcases photos taken in Louisiana at plantation sites along the Mississippi River, while “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” his first landscape series produced in 2017, commemorates the pathways of Underground Railroad escapees in and around Cleveland, Ohio.
The third, “Stony the Road,” named after a verse in the iconic poem and song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” is new and was commissioned by the museum. “What we intended with the exchange is that he would create for us a body of 12 to 15 photographs of a historic space,” says Oliver. “We brought him here to have him take a general look at Richmond and historical spaces, and he chose the historic Slave Trail at Manchester docks to be the focal point of the work. It is a documented space where African Americans were brought into bondage and labored.”
In addition to these photos, Bey will also show a new 10-minute film, “350,000,” that captures the trail in moving images. For the soundtrack, Bey collaborated with Dr. E. Gaynell Sherrod, associate professor of dance and choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University. An earlier film, “Evergreen,” a meditation on a notorious Louisiana plantation, will also be screened continuously during the “Elegy” exhibit.
Style Weekly recently connected with the ever-evolving Dawoud Bey, who is partially deaf and requires a hearing aid, in an interview conducted by email.
- Courtesy of VMFA
- "Irrigation Ditch," from the series "In This Here Place," 2019, by Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953); gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey
Style Weekly: You scouted several sites before creating the images in “Stony the Road”? Why did you choose Richmond's Slave Trail?
Dawoud Bey: The Richmond Slave Trail was the only site I seriously considered for this project. I did look at other historical sites in Richmond in order to get a sense of the place and the historical narrative of the area. But the Slave Trail was the only site I wanted to photograph and film on, given how powerful it is that this site is still visible and holds so much history.
How do you approach trying to capture the historical importance of a place like the Slave Trail? How much time did you spend there capturing the images?
The importance of the site already exists. It is foundational to the beginning of slavery in the South. So I don’t seek to ‘capture’ that fact; it’s there. What I see my work being, as an artist, is to bear witness to that history and then find a way to make it resonate. I’m also looking to bring these sites and history into a contemporary conversation, since my work functions inside of a conversation of contemporary art. I want to bring a Black historical presence to that space by making work that functions alongside other art objects, and also within the context of the landscape tradition; to infuse that tradition with a Black presence. I want my work to create a kind of liminal space that is simultaneously past and present.
How much time did you spend there [photographing] the images?
I made my first visit to Richmond in 2019, and made several more visits before starting work photographing on the Slave Trail in 2022. The photographing was done over the course of two separate visits. After I completed photographing, I began working on the two-channel film “350,000.” I was fortunate that I was able to assemble the film and production crew here in Richmond through SpangTV and In Your Ear Studio. The cinematographer Bron Moyi came in from New Orleans. He knew the producer Jordan Roderick[s] as part of the film community in the South, and also as part of the group of filmmakers who have come out of the film and motion picture program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” provided lyrical inspiration for the title of “Stony the Road.” Does music generally inspire your work?
Yes, music was my first expressive form, and I am deeply attuned to Black music history. I usually title my projects in a way that alludes to the history of Black cultural production in order to make clear that my work is in conversation with that history, and that it is also a part of the ongoing history of Black expressive culture. But music is one of my primary inspirations, instrumental music – or jazz – especially. John Coltrane is one of my enduring inspirations. Hearing his album “A Love Supreme” for the first time as a teenage drummer reshaped the world for me in terms of Coltrane’s level of musical and artistic rigor and also his stated intention that his music be “a force for good.” This idea of technical and expressive rigor attached to transformative intention continues to guide my work.
- Courtesy of VMFA
- "Conjoined Trees and Field" from the series "In This Here Place," 2019, by Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953); gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey
How about literature? It's been mentioned that this is very important in your work.
The works of writer Toni Morrison carry the same weight and significance for me as John Coltrane. And her novel “Beloved” was an important narrative point of departure for my project “In This Here Place.” That title comes from a section in that Morrison novel. The level of craft and imagination that she brings to the telling of Black American stories is a kind of North Star for me.
How you approach filmmaking as opposed to still photography?
The moving image and sound have the capacity to do something that the mute photograph cannot do. I try to use that medium to expand the way I can engage with a place or narrative. It is an opportunity to create a dynamic relationship between the visual and the sonic, to use both as expanded space of the imagination in order to engage the viewer. I studied film throughout graduate school with a great filmmaker Michael Romer, who made “Nothing But A Man,” one of the first narrative commercial films featuring Black actors in non-stereotypical roles. I love working inside of the rectangular space of the frame – which film has in common with the photograph – but also through film activating that space. That rectangular space is my expressive space, it’s where I get to do the things that I do, using the lens and the optical transformation that the lens makes possible, and the final large-scale print or moving image as a way to translate experience into yet another two-dimensional form.
Talk about “In This Here Place” and “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” and how they fit in with the Richmond work in “Elegy.”
The works in “Elegy” are part of a quartet of history-based work that I began in 2012 with “The Birmingham Project.” The projects trace their way back in African American history from the moment of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, to the flight from slavery of the “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” photographs, and the landscape of enslavement in “In This Here Place.” “Stony the Road” takes us back to the very beginnings of this historical narrative at the site of the beginning of the encounter of African Americans in this country with the Richmond Slave Trail, which begins the institution of slavery. So taken together these projects are my way of tracing and visualizing the history and traumas experienced by Black people historically in America and trying to make sure that history is not forgotten. “Elegy” is the first time that the three projects that are landscape-based will be exhibited together.
People think of you primarily as a street portrait photographer. What made you shift your creative lens to landscapes?
I’ve always been interested in the spaces that the people in my photographs have inhabited, since a good part of the narrative and meaning that is ascribed to the subject has to do with the environment in which they are photographed. After “The Birmingham Project," I wanted to continue to engage history as the subject of my work but didn’t think the portrait was the appropriate vehicle. So I started to think about the way that narrative is embedded in place and in the land itself and began to make that the conceptual focus of the work.
Will you continue to work in landscapes and to make films?
I will definitely be continuing the landscape-based work that I’ve been doing which is now central to what my work is. I think it’s important for any artist to evolve and to not become their own oldies show by continuing to work in a particular form once they’ve sufficiently answered the questions related to that particular form. But then I always want to leave myself open to what forms the work requires. Never say never. I do have another film in mind. It will be history-based, but also more personal, a part of my own personal narrative and history growing up in this country.
What would you like “Elegy” viewers to come away with?
I would hope that viewers leave the experience of “Elegy” in a state of reflection. I’d also hope that they ask themselves how the history that I’m engaging in the exhibition is meaningful to our contemporary circumstances, because it definitely is. The past does not stay in the past; we bring the past with us into the present.
“Dawoud Bey: Elegy” will be on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts from Nov. 18 to Feb. 25, 2024. www.vmfa.museum. Tickets $12 adults, $10 seniors and $8 for youth 7-17. VMFA members free.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Bey's age. He turns 70 on Nov. 25.