Diamond (2001), by Dawoud Bey
Diamond (2001), by Dawoud Bey

In 1969 the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted “Harlem on My Mind,” a collection of photographs, films, and audio recordings that aimed to tell the story of African-Americans in the 20th century, from the Great Migration to the civil rights movement. An outcry accompanied the opening. Critics complained that the show was curated by a white man, Allon Schoener, and designed for white audiences. Twenty-six years later, in an essay titled “Culture and Race: Still on America’s Mind,” the New York Times‘s Michael Kimmelman recalled concerns that the show was “another instance of white voyeurism—the dowager Met slumming at the Cotton Club.”

It was a success all the same, drawing nearly 75,000 visitors in its first nine days. And somewhere along the line it drew 16-year-old Dawoud Bey, who lived in Queens but had family in Harlem. Kimmelman reminds us that 1969 was an especially tense moment in American race relations—Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only a year before—and in “Harlem on My Mind” Bey saw representations of embattled black Americans displayed, for the first time in his experience, on museum walls.

The exhibit inspired him, he recalled during a talk last week at the Art Institute, even as the controversy surrounding it taught him that the institution of the museum isn’t necessarily a “benign space.”

Bey picked up a camera soon after that trip to MOMA and set to work documenting his own vision of Harlem­­­ in a series of portraits he presented ten years later, at the neighborhood’s own Studio Museum, as “Harlem, U.S.A.” The pictures from that show are being displayed together now, for the first time since 1979, at the Art Institute, which recently purchased them for its permanent collection.

In “Harlem U.S.A.” Bey established a style he’d adhere to through much of his career: tight portraiture, with subjects looking intently into the camera’s lens. He edited himself heavily. Of all the images he’d created in the four years leading up to “Harlem, U.S.A.,” only 25 made it into the show.

And the result was luminous—a romp through the neighborhood, packed with jarringly intimate pictures like The Blues Singer, whose subject cackles, microphone in hand, as he sits behind an amp, and The Man in the Bowler Hat, with its elderly black Beau Brummel sporting not only the titular accessory but a white bow tie, an elegant coat, and a slightly bemused expression. He’s classic down to the mustache that complements his hat so well.

Social context is largely kept out of frame—implied rather than shown. In one of my favorite images, three matrons stand outdoors in daylight, leaning on a wooden police barricade. They’re in fancy hats, and one wears a fur coat. A balloon and the other people behind them suggest a parade. But the overall mood is unsettling. The solemn expressions on two of the women’s faces—and the official authority represented by the barricade—convey a deep historical ambiguity. A mix of safety and threat. Harlem may be home, but Selma is in there, too.

A wider range of Bey’s work goes on view May 13 at the Renaissance Society, which is hosting “Picturing People,” a retrospective that follows Bey’s career all the way to the present­—and to Chicago, where he now teaches photography at Columbia College.

In his most recent undertaking, “Strangers/Community,” shot on the south side, Bey made double portraits of people who don’t know each other. The photos have a pleasantly random feel to them, as if the photographer isn’t overly concerned about portraying particular types of people. But they do, pointedly, offer a much more diverse cast of characters than appears in “Harlem, U.S.A.” So do two other recent series: “Class Pictures,” a group of photos taken in six high schools across the midwest, and “Character Project,” in which the student subjects are all from Chicago.

Formally, these series are consistent with “Harlem, U.S.A.“—Bey’s got a style, and he’s sticking to it. Though shot in color, they evoke the same weird timelessness. And yet the details are tellingly different—here a Nike logo, there a shirt that might’ve come from Urban Outfitters—and the characters are more immediately recognizable as our contemporaries. They’re the people you see when you walk out the door.

As a teen photographer Bey played the upstart, trying to turn a community of adults into art. Now he’s focusing on kids a quarter his age. His skill in drawing them out remains admirable. He told the crowd at his AIC talk that he sees himself as a director when he’s taking pictures, trying to lead his subjects toward a “more compelling performance of themselves.” Once that’s accomplished the bond breaks. Bey seldom sees the people he photographs again.