Everlasting Harlem: A Conversation with Dawoud Bey
An Interview for Sixty Inches From Center
Dawoud Bey’s presence in Chicago makes it easy to forget that he was not born and raised here. Although Chicago has been his home since 1998, his signature approach to portraiture traces back to his days growing up in New York, living with his family in Queens and refining his eye on the streets of Harlem. This is the place where his work always comes back to. In everything from his Polaroid Portraits to the Class Pictures and The Birmingham Project, there is evidence of the same subject sensitivity that was first brought to his Harlem, USA photographs, which were taken between 1975 and 1978, and exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.
For Harlem Redux at Stephen Daiter Gallery, Bey has coupled Harlem, USA with a new series of photographs that capture recent physical and demographic shifts of the neighborhood. To make the nuances and tensions of change visible, he takes a step back from making people the dominant focus and instead forefronts the landscape. Blurred streets, hard dividing lines, and a recurring motif of temporary, grid-like fences, tarps, scaffolding and other common signifiers of gentrification serve as symbols of erasure, looming displacement, and the detachment that makes it all possible.
The simple act of dovetailing these photographs for Harlem Redux provokes a set of questions that are harder to access through each series separately. Apart, they speak volumes–primarily to each of their respective moments in time. Harlem, USA freezes an expansive, manifold richness of Black life during a complex golden era. Then, the newer photos transport us to the present moment and make visible the changes and traces that have ebbed and flowed in the area for years, and have now reached an unsettling peak. Together, these two bodies of work bookend a forty-year transformation and rouse curiosity about the time in between. To Chicagoans, these photos may feel like a familiar and painful paradigm.
Just before Harlem Redux opened earlier this September, I had an exchange with Bey about his formative years in New York, what made him relocate to Chicago, and his take on the remaking of Harlem.
Photo Credits (top to bottom):
West 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, archival pigment print, 2016. © Dawoud Bey.
Former Renaissance Ballroom Site, archival pigment print, 2015. © Dawoud Bey.
At a Tent Revival Meeting, Gelatin silver print, from the series “Harlem, USA,” 1977. © Dawoud Bey.
A Girl at Number 100, Gelatin silver print, from the series “Harlem, USA,” 1975. © Dawoud Bey.
A Man on the Corner of Lenox Avenue & 125th Street, Gelatin silver print, from the series “Harlem, USA,” c. 1976. © Dawoud Bey.
All photos courtesy of the artist.