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The big picture: stepping out in style

Tim Adams
·2-min read

In 1969, the photographer Dawoud Bey wandered into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, which was staging an exhibition called Harlem on My Mind: The Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968. Bey had understood art museums up to that point as a place where your schoolteacher might take you to look at history paintings of European aristocracy, but here were people queueing to see “a part of his world”, images of ordinary black citizens who lived a few blocks away. Aged 15, he realised his vocation.

In the five decades since, Bey has taken that “cultural capital” in different directions. He has made unforgettable series of pictures about the surviving antebellum architecture of the slave plantations of the American south and of the haunted landscapes of the “Underground Railroad” by which slaves escaped to the free states of the north. The legacy of Harlem street photography that he first encountered as a teenager has been a constant, however. A new monograph collects some of this work and includes this portrait of two girls from a celebrated marching band, the Jackie Robinson Center Steppers.

The portrait, in particular the steady, knowing gaze of the girl on the right, and the contrast with the shy distraction of her friend, is characteristic of Bey’s uncanny ability to get under the skin of his subjects. In interviews, he has described his mission in photographing black faces as “creating a sense that these are people with rich interior lives, not just social types”. The longer you look at this picture, the more that interiority establishes itself, like the emerging consciousness of a character in a 19th-century novel. Working in Harlem, Bey understood that it was unnatural to be stopped by a stranger on the street with a tripod and a large camera. When he took portraits such as this one, he always tried to “back up for a moment to give them the space to re-enter the world that they were in before I showed up”.

Street Portraits by Dawoud Bey is published this month by Mack (£40); Dawoud Bey: An American Project is at Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 17 April–3 October