• Jason Smikle
  • Dawoud Bey

Nearly 40 years ago, photographer Dawoud Bey was just beginning his first project in Harlem, New York. Bey, who now teaches at Columbia College, grew up in Queens and spent his high school years playing in garage bands. In 1969, when he was 16, he made his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the exhibit “Harlem on My Mind”—a visit that marked the beginning of Bey’s photographic inquiry. A few years later he took his own camera to the Harlem streets. Bey’s Harlem photographs are alarmingly intimate. His subjects often look directly into the camera, collapsing the invisible boundary between subject and viewer. His lens is rigorous, meaningful, and captures an almost spiritual quality in each subject.

While Bey’s Harlem pictures are his first, his notions of self-presentation and portraiture were already at work. Bey’s exhibit “Harlem, U.S.A.” premiered at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Today, for the first time since 1979, the Art Institute remounts the show in its entirety. Bey speaks about the show tonight at 6 PM in the Art Institute’s Rubloff Auditorium (111 S. Michigan); the event is full, but you can register for the wait list here.