Dawoud Bey

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Dawoud Bey
David Edward Smikle

(1953-11-25) November 25, 1953 (age 69)[1]
EducationBFA, Empire State College; MFA, Yale University School of Art
Known forPhotography
Notable workHarlem, USA
Class Pictures
The Birmingham Project
Night Coming Tenderly, Black
ChildrenRamon Smikle
AwardsMacArthur Fellowship

Dawoud Bey (born David Edward Smikle; November 25, 1953) is an American photographer and educator known for his large-scale art photography and street photography portraits, including American adolescents in relation to their community, and other often marginalized subjects.[2] In 2017, Bey was named a fellow and the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation[3] and is regarded as one of the "most innovative and influential photographers of his generation".[4]

Bey is a professor and Distinguished Artist at Columbia College Chicago.[5] According to The New York Times, "in the seemingly simple gesture of photographing Black subjects in everyday life, [Bey, an African-American,] helped to introduce Blackness in the context of fine art long before it was trendy, or even accepted"[6]

Early life and education[edit]

Born David Edward Smikle in New York City's Jamaica, Queens neighborhood, he changed his name to Dawoud Bey in the early 1970s.[7] Bey graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo High School.[8] He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1977 to 1978, and spent the next two years as part of the CETA-funded Cultural Council Foundation Artists Project. In 1990, he graduated with a BFA in Photography from Empire State College, and received his MFA from Yale University School of Art in 1993.[9]

Bey didn't receive his first camera until he was 15,[10] and has stated until that point he wanted to become a musician.[11] Early musical inspirations included John Coltrane[12] and early photography inspirations were James Van Der Zee[10] and Roy Decarava.[11] In his youth, Bey joined the Black Panthers Party and sold their newspaper on street corners.[12]


He does not consider his work to be traditional documentary. He'll pose subjects, remind them of gestures and sometimes give them accessories.[11] Over the course of his career, Bey has participated in more than 20 artist residencies, which have allowed him to work directly with the adolescent subjects of his most recent work.[13]

A product of the 1960s, Bey said both he and his work are products of the attitude, "if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem."[14] This philosophy significantly influenced his artistic practice and resulted in a way of working that is both community-focused and collaborative in nature. Bey's earliest photographs, in the style of street photography, evolved into a seminal five-year project documenting the everyday life and people of Harlem in Harlem USA (1975–1979) that was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.[15] In 2012, the Art Institute of Chicago mounted the first complete showing of the "Harlem, USA" photographs since that original exhibition, adding several never before printed photographs to the original group of twenty-five vintage prints. The complete group of photographs were acquired at that time by the AIC.[16]

During the 1980s, Bey collaborated with the artist David Hammons, documenting the latter's performance pieces - Bliz-aard Ball Sale and Pissed Off.[17]

Over time Bey proves that he develops a bond with his subjects with being more political. The article "Exhibits Challenge Us Not to Look Away Photographers Focus on Pain, Reality in the City" by Carolyn Cohen from the Boston Globe, identifies Bey's work as having a "definite political edge" to it according to Roy DeCarava. He writes more about the aesthetics of Beys work and how it is associated with documentary photography and how his work shows empathy for his subjects. This article also mentions Bey exhibiting his work at the Walker Art Center, where Kelly Jones identifies the strength of his work and his relationship with his subjects once again.[18]

Of his work with teenagers Bey has said, "My interest in young people has to do with the fact that they are the arbiters of style in the community; their appearance speaks most strongly of how a community of people defines themselves at a particular historical moment."[19] During a residency at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 1992, Bey began photographing students from a variety of high schools both public and private, in an effort to “reach across lines of presumed differences” among the students and communities.[20] This new direction in his work guided Bey for the next fifteen years, including two additional residencies at the Addison, an ample number of similar projects across the country, and culminated in a major 2007 exhibition and publication of portraits of teenagers organized by Aperture and entitled Class Pictures.[21] Alongside each of the photographs in Class Pictures, is a personal statement written by each subject. "[Bey] manages to capture all the complicated feelings of being young — the angst, the weight of enormous expectations, the hope for the future — with a single look."[6]

The Birmingham Project’ (2012) is based on the terrorist-bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama and its victims that occurred on Sunday the 15th of September 1963.[22] The explosion created a hole that was “large enough to drive a big truck through”.[23] The 1963 FBI report states that the bombing killed 4 children; Addie Collins, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley (all aged 14) and Denise McNair (age 10) as well as injuring 16 other people.[24] 2 African American boys, James Johnny Robinson (age 16) and Virgil Ware (age 13) were also killed by police in racially motivated attacks after a resulting segregation rally.[25]

Each photograph in the project is a juxtaposition of two portraits of Birmingham residents. One of a person the same age as the victims when they died and the other of an adult the age of the victim should they have survived.[2] These diptychs are accompanied by a split-screen video titled ‘9.15.63’ which recreates the journey of a car-ride to the church from the perspective of a child. The video shows locations “charged with significance for the black community in Birmingham during the Civil Rights era—a schoolroom, a lunch counter, a barbershop, and a beauty parlor”.[26]

Night Coming Tenderly, Black’ (2017) is a series of 25 photographs by Bey that reimagines the final part of the journey along the ‘Underground Railroad’. The inspiration for the project stems from Roy DeCarava’s (1919-2009) dark photography. The exhibition title was inspired by a line from a poem titled ‘Dream Variations’ by Langston Hughes.[27]

The ‘Underground Railroad’ was not a physical railroad but a system in early-mid 19th century U.S.A. It consisted of routes, safehouses and abolitionists that helped fugitive-slaves escape from southern states to northern states and Canada until the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ in 1863. It was called the ‘Underground Railroad’ as its operations had to be conducted secretly at night but also because railroad terms served as code words.[28]

Bey explains that the intention of the project was “to recreate the spatial and sensory experiences of those moving furtively through the darkness.” These landscape photographs, that were taken in the day were printed in dark black and grey tones which allowed details to emerge slowly. He explains these dark tones as being “a metaphor for an enveloping physical darkness, a passage to liberation that was a protective cover for the escaping African American slaves.”[29]

Dawoud Bey: 2 American projects’ is a hardcover book published in 2020 that combines 2 of Dawoud Bey’s projects; ‘The Birmingham project’ and ‘Night Coming Tenderly, Black’.[30] The book was designed by Pentagram for ‘An American Project’; a retrospective of Bey’s work in 2020 held in SFMOMA and co-organised by the Whitney Museum of American Art.[31] Across Bey’s career he has become known for his community-based work. He states that his photography “is an ethical practice requiring collaboration with his subjects”.[32] In recent times, his practice has focused on presenting the histories of black communities through the visualisation of their contemporary lives.[33] Bey’s approach can be felt in both projects in ‘Dawoud Bey: 2 American projects’.

The photography in ‘Dawoud Bey: Two American Projects’ is a departure from Bey’s colour photography. The monochrome images of ‘The Birmingham Project’ and ‘Night Coming Tenderly, Black’ show a “focus on historical events and collective memory”.[31] Bey is known to arrange his photographs in pairs and grids. Pentagram designers aimed to echo this notion by creating a “strong but neutral framework for the series”, presenting the two projects side by side. This allows them to tell a linked story of “past and present, landscapes and portraits, slavery and terrorism.”[31]

The layout of the book is subtle and allows the work to be self-explanatory. The typographical composition elicits ideas of motion and tension and is arranged to emphasize certain words and phrases. The type is set in a non-distracting combination of Belingkse Serif for titles and Bradford (serif) or Whyte Inktrap (sans serif) for body text. A 3-column grid was used in the design and is counterbalanced by staggered images with the bodies of text.[31]

Published by Yale University Press, and edited by Corey Keller and Elisabeth Sherman, it presents the projects in tandem and includes the poem ‘Dream Variations’ by Langston Hughes as well as accompanying texts by Steven Nelson, Torkwase Dyson, Claudia Rankine and Imani Perry to contextualise Bey’s work historically and thematically.[30]

Bey has lived in Chicago, Illinois since 1998. He is a professor of art and Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago.[6]



Bey has exhibited in a number of solo and group shows including Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995 at the Walker Art Center in 1995,[38] Dawoud Bey at the Queens Museum of Art in 1998, Dawoud Bey: The Chicago Project at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art in 2003, Dawoud Bey: Detroit Portraits at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004, and Class Pictures, organized by Aperture Foundation and on view initially at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 2007, and then touring to museums throughout the country for four years, including the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum[39] among others.

His work "The Birmingham Project" commemorates the six young African Americans killed in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The exhibition opened at the Birmingham Museum of Art[40] in September 2013, fifty years after the event. The exhibition opened at George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film in 2016.[41]

In early 2019, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted an exhibition titled "Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black", consisting of twenty-five black and white photographs that were captured along the Underground Railroad in Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio.[42]

A retrospective exhibition, titled "An American Project" was curated by the Whitney Museum and SFMOMA in 2019-2021, traveling to San Francisco, the High Museum in Atlanta, and New York City.[12][43]


Bey's photographs are included in many permanent collections in the United States and internationally, such as the Pérez Art Museum Miami,[18] Art Institute of Chicago, Cleveland Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Whitney Museum, J. Paul Getty Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Tate Modern, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim, among others.[19]


  • Portraits 1975–1995. With essays by Kellie Jones, with A.D. Coleman and Jessica Hagedorn, photography (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995).
  • The Chicago Project. With essays by Jacqueline Terrassa and Stephanie Smith (Chicago: Smart Museum of Art, 2003).
  • Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey. With essays by Taro Nettleton, interview with Carrie Mae Weems (New York: Aperture, 2007).
  • Harlem, U.S.A. With essays by Matthew Witkovsky and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitt (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2012)
  • Picturing People. With an essay by Arthur Danto, Interview by Hamza Walker (Chicago: Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, 2012)
  • The Birmingham Project. With an essay by Ron Platt (Birmingham Museum of Art, 2012)
  • Seeing Deeply. With essays by Sarah Lewis, Deborah Willis, David Travis, Hilton Als, Jacqueline Terrassa, Rebecca Walker, Maurice Berger, and Leigh Raiford (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018)
  • Street Portraits. London: Mack, 2021. ISBN 978-1-913620-10-3. With an essay by Greg Tate.


  1. ^ "Dawoud Bey". TheHistoryMakers. TheHistoryMakers. Retrieved November 6, 2022.
  2. ^ a b "Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project". www.nga.gov. Retrieved 2018-07-14.
  3. ^ "MacArthur Foundation". www.macfound.org.
  4. ^ "Dawoud Bey: An American Project". whitney.org. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  5. ^ "Dawoud Bey - Faculty". Columbia College Chicago.
  6. ^ a b c Charlton, Lauretta (2020-10-19). "Dawoud Bey, Chronicler of Black American Life". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-04-14.
  7. ^ Blair, Gwenda (25 July 2012). "Dawoud Bey's Portrait of '70s Harlem, Gathered for Today". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Sengupta, Somini. "Portrait of Young People as Artists", The New York Times, January 18, 1998. Accessed February 12, 2019. "Dawoud Bey, the acclaimed portraitist of African-American life, returned home to Queens recently.... Aklima Khan, a junior at Mr. Bey's alma mater, Benjamin Cardozo High School in Bayside, learned to notice details."
  9. ^ "Dawoud Bey '93MFA Exhibition at AAMP - Yale Alumni Art League". yalealumniartleague.org.
  10. ^ a b "Dawoud Bey's Biography". The HistoryMakers. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  11. ^ a b c "'An American Project': For decades, Dawoud Bey has chronicled Black life". opb. Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  12. ^ a b c Noor, Tausif (2021-04-29). "A Photographer Looks Deep Into America's Past". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2021-04-30.
  13. ^ For a comprehensive chronology of the artist's life as well as a list of his solo exhibitions, see Jock Reynolds, Taro Nettleton, Carrie Mae Weems, and Dawoud Bey, Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey (New York: Aperture, 2007).
  14. ^ "OIE to present Dawoud Bey, a photographer who looks beyond stereotypes - News - Bates College". www.bates.edu. 2 February 2012.
  15. ^ Blair, Gwenda (2012-07-25). "'70s Portrait of Harlem, Gathered for Today". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2020-02-13.
  16. ^ "Dawoud Bey: Harlem, U.S.A. | The Art Institute of Chicago". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2018-07-14.
  17. ^ White, Simone; Bey, Dawoud (29 October 2020). "Dawoud Bey on His Powerful Photographs of Black American Life | Frieze". Frieze (215). Retrieved 2021-02-23.
  18. ^ a b Cohen, Carolyn (18 October 1998). "Exhibits challenge us not to look away Photographers focus on pain, reality in the city". Boston Globe. p. 21. ProQuest 405239244.
  19. ^ a b Kellie Jones, "Dawoud Bey: Portraits in the Theater of Desire" in Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995 ed. by A.D. Coleman, Jock Reynolds, Kellie Jones, and Dawoud Bey (Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1995) 48.
  20. ^ Jacqueline Terrassa, "Shepherding Power," Dawoud Bey: The Chicago Project, (Chicago, IL: Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2003): 91.
  21. ^ O'Sullivan, Michael (26 December 2008). "Dawoud Bey's Photos Only Part of the Picture" – via www.washingtonpost.com.
  22. ^ "Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project". www.nga.gov. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  23. ^ "Baptist Street Church Bombing". Federal Bureau of Investigation. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  24. ^ "16th Street Church Bombing Part 1 of 51". FBI. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  25. ^ "2 Negroes killed in incidents here". cdm16044.contentdm.oclc.org. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  27. ^ "Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  28. ^ "Underground Railroad | United States history | Britannica". www.britannica.com. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  29. ^ "Portfolio of photographs acquired from Dawoud Bey's Night Coming Tenderly, Black". sites.utexas.edu. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  30. ^ a b "Dawoud Bey | Yale University Press". yalebooks.yale.edu. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  31. ^ a b c d "'Dawoud Bey: Two American Projects' — Story". Pentagram. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  32. ^ "Dawoud Bey: An American Project". whitney.org. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  33. ^ "Dawoud Bey - Artists - Sean Kelly Gallery". www.skny.com. Retrieved 2022-03-09.
  34. ^ "John Simon Guggenheim Foundation | Dawoud Bey".
  35. ^ Coleman, Chloe (16 October 2017). "Perspective - 'A radical reshaping of the world is possible, one person at a time': Dawoud Bey on being awarded a MacArthur genius grant". The Washington Post.
  36. ^ "ICP announces Infinity Awards winners". www.1854.photography. Retrieved 2021-04-19.
  37. ^ "Dawoud Bey". International Photography Hall of Fame. Retrieved 2022-07-28.
  38. ^ Reynolds, Jock (1995). Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995. Walker Art Center. ISBN 978-0935640465.
  39. ^ Museum, Milwaukee Art. "Milwaukee Art Museum - Class Pictures". mam.org.
  40. ^ "Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project - Birmingham Museum of Art". artsbma.org. 8 September 2013.
  41. ^ Platt, Ron (2013). Dawoud Bey: The Birmingham Project. ISBN 978-1-934774-11-3.
  42. ^ "Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 2019-02-07.
  43. ^ "Dawoud Bey: An American Project". whitney.org. Retrieved 2023-08-16.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bey, Dawoud, Jacqueline Terrassa, Stephanie Smith, and Elizabeth Meister. Dawoud Bey: The Chicago Project. Chicago, IL: Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, 2003.
  • Braff, Phyllis. “Dawoud Bey: 'The Southampton Project'.” New York Times. April 4, 1999, Arts Section, East Coast Edition
  • Coleman, A.D., Jock Reynolds, Kellie Jones, and Dawoud Bey. Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995. Minneapolis, MN: Walker Art Center, 1995
  • Cotter, Holland. “Art in Review.” New York Times. Oct 25, 1996, Arts Section, East Coast Edition.
  • “Dawoud Bey: Portraits.” Art in America. Vol. 83 no.8 (August 1995): 23.
  • Glueck, Grace. “Faces of the Centuries, Famous and Far From It.” New York Times. September 17, 1999, Arts Section, East Coast Edition.
  • Johnson, Ken. “Dawoud Bey.” May 10, 2002, p. B35.
  • Johnson, Ken. “Enigmatic Portraits of Teen-Agers Free of All Context.” New York Times. August 21, 1998, Arts Section, East Coast Edition.
  • Kimmelman, Michael. “In New Jersey, Evolution in Retrospectives.” New York Times. July 18, 1997, Arts Section, East Coast Edition.
  • Leffingwell, Edward. “Dawoud Bey at Gorney Bravin + Lee.” Art In America. Vol. 101 no. 10 (November 2002): 154-155
  • Lifson, Ben. “Dawoud Bey.” Artforum International. Vol. 35 no. 6 (February 1997): 87.
  • Lippard, Lucy. Nueva Luz photographic journal, Volume 1#2 (En Foco, Bronx: 1985)
  • Loke, Margaret. “Review: Dawoud Bey.” ARTnews. Vol. 96 no. 2 (February 1997): 118.
  • McQuaid, Cate. “Teens in America, pose by pose.” Boston Globe. September 23, 2007, Arts Section.
  • Reid, Calvin. “Dawoud Bey at David Beitzel.” Art in America. Vol. 85 no. 4 (April 1997): 113.
  • Reid, Calvin. “Dawoud Bey.” Arts Magazine. Vol. 65 no. 1 (Sept. 1990): 76.
  • Reynolds, Jock, Taro Nettleton, Carrie Mae Weems, and Dawoud Bey. Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey. New York: Aperture, 2007.
  • Schwabsky, Barry. “Redeeming the Humanism in Portraiture.” New York Times. April 20, 1997, Arts Section, East Coast Edition.
  • Sengupta, Somini. “Portrait of Young People as Artists.” New York Times. January 18, 1998 Arts Section, East Coast Edition.
  • Zdanovics, Olga. “Dawoud Bey.” Art Papers. Vol. 22 no. 3 (May/June 1998): 43–4.

External links[edit]

  • Dawoud Bey on the African American Visual Artists Database