Sunday, February 1, 2009

Dawoud Bey in Baltimore

Before watching the SuperBowl 43 (XLIII?), I waded through a month’s worth of unread Washington Posts so I could finally recycle them and found an article that reminded me that a significant African American photographic artist, Dawoud Bey, has a show up in Baltimore at the Walters Art Museum, which will soon be coming to a close.

One of the great things about living in the DC area is having a city like Baltimore, so utterly different in every way from DC, a mere half hour up the road (at least from my MD suburb). Baltimore has it all, Old World European architecture strewn about in pockets throughout the city, modern contemporary architecture (like the Walters itself), the storied front-yard-less rowhouses with the steps that empty onto the sidewalks, and of course the neighborhoods popularized (maybe even romanticized) in my favorite TV shows “The Wire” and “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” There's the tourist crap like the Baltimore Harbor and the National Aquarium, but there's also a gem like the museum of outsider art known as the American Visionary Art Museum.

But I digress. Bey, a Chicago artist/educator, was in town last Summer doing an artist-in-residence at the Walters in which he collaborated with Baltimore High School students from throughout the city on a project called “Portraits Re/examined: A Dawoud Bey Project.” In the course of the program, Bey shot some of his patented large format photographic portraits of a number of young people, most of them in color. These portraits are now displayed in his show of the same name at the Walters, each juxtaposed with a classic painted portrait from the Walters collection from the 19th and 18th Century. The portraits themselves have been critiqued by the students in accompanying placards and orally on museum iPods using the vocabulary and knowledge they have acquired as part of this program, displaying a remarkable depth of insight.

Bey has a knack for shooting portraits that appear to have been casual snapshots but which, because of the old-school nature of large-format photography, involve scrupulously posing his subjects before his tripod-mounted 4x5 camera. This is a remarkable illusion in part due to the fact that once the subject is focused and in place, the shutter is closed and the film pack put in place and the subject has to remain absolutely in place when the shutter is released or risk falling out of focus. Bey’s photographs are all clinically sharp, revealing every hair, pore, and blemish. The photos themselves were all enlarged to about 3 ft. x 4 ft. and framed without mattes.

As compelling as the photographs and the show itself were, the companion show in the next block at the Contemporary Museum (actually a one-floor art gallery), called “Class Pictures,” was even more so. Bey had done a portrait project in which he photographed selected Chicago High School kids in their schools, all but one posed in a single classroom set up for the portrait session. Some are seated, some not, some rest their heads on their hands , others effect different gestures, all but one un-smiling, all manifesting the body language, clothes and hair styles unique to that age, wary, often self-conscious, a visual time capsule of this pivotal time in the lives of these young people.

Everyone has gone through having to put up with yearly school portraits throughout their matriculation from K-12. Bey’s work is so much more. He photographs his subjects with his large-format camera using a single umbrella (judging by the catch-light in their eyes), match-lighting in a way that allows us to view the background ambience, informed but not distracted by it. Bey’s technique is old-school 19th Century portraiture but unlike his predecessors, Bey’s subjects make a point of staring directly into the lens, locking the viewer in an unflinching gaze that forces us to engage with the subject.

Bey’s portraits are hauntingly, heart-breakingly beautiful in the enforced relationship he imposes between the viewer and subject. As an oral historian, I was particularly drawn to the captions by which the subject addresses the viewer, some are brief, some flippant, most talk at some length in prose at once poetic and hauntingly revealing. Portrait photography can be as intimate as a dance between the subject and the photographer, and Bey’s camera with its unflinching sharp focus studies the faces of these students in discomfittingly intimate, clinical, acne-and-all detail, and their eyes bore back into the viewer just as uncompromisingly.

The Walters show prominently features three quotes that speak to the art of portraiture and the complicity that occurs between the subject and the photographer/viewer when it its done well:

Nothing in a portrait is a matter of indifference—Dawoud Bey

The Meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances. If there is any reaction, both are transformed.—Carl Jung

I am what time, circumstance, history, have made me, certainly, but I am also much more than that. So are we all.—James Baldwin

Two videos accompany the show, one in which Bey lets four individual subjects talk to us as candidly as the captions do, Bey’s video camera zoomed in so close that only one eye at a time is visible, the camera tracking leisurely from eye to eye, down to the the lips and back. The other video appeared to speak to the project itself, with Bey and the students recounting their impressions. Didn’t get to stay for this one though since it was getting close to SuperBowl time. Oh well.

Portraits Re/Examined: a Dawoud Bey Project ends February 16, 2009

Class Pictures ends February 21, 2009

Dawoud Bey's blog