April 9, 2008
Photographer Dawoud Bey
Making Contact at Oxbow School
One day in 1969, a curious New York teenager bought a ticket—and discovered his future as an artist.
Dawoud Bey wasn’t looking for anything more than a little excitement when he took the train from Queens to Manhattan to see an exhibition called “Harlem on My Mind,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“I wanted to see what all this controversy was about,” recalled Bey, who was less interested in the photographs on display than in the protests the show had sparked in both the black and white communities.
But that day was a quiet one, with no protesters or police on hand.
“So I had no choice,” Bey said, but to tour the gallery—“and that turned out to be a very transformative moment,” he told the audience during his Oxbow Public Lecture at Copia March 30.
In the photographs he saw at the Met, by artists like James VanDerZee, young Bey found both painterly composition and compelling human subjects. The camera, he realized, could be a powerful machine—not only for creating art, but for making contact.
“I decided to go to Harlem with my camera to see if I could reestablish a relationship with this community by making photographs,” said Bey, who began by simply walking the streets on weekends—“initially not taking any pictures, just letting the community see me.”
Inspired by the street photography of artists like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bey spent several years capturing the faces of Harlem, working quickly and improvisationally with a small 35-millimeter camera.
In the 1980s he began to develop a “more reciprocal relationship” with his subjects, using a larger camera and taking more time to set up his shots.
Polaroid’s instant film allowed Bey to leave prints with his subjects, another way of establishing reciprocity. In 1991, Bey approached the company for permission to work with one of its 20” x 24” instant cameras, most famously associated with portraitist Elsa Dorfman.
With that move, Bey left the street for the studio—the 20 x 24 weighs 265 pounds—but his work continues to focus on portraits of everyday people, like the teenagers in his “Class Pictures” series.
In his quest for connection, Bey has begun including personal statements from his young subjects, giving their words equal weight with their images.
“Young people tend to be represented, in the larger culture, in a very one-dimensional way,” he said. “I wanted to bring a more complex psychological reality to who young people were.”
A professor of photography at Columbia College in Chicago, Bey has also worked with younger students at Phillips Andover Academy and nearby Lawrence High School in Massachusetts. Following his Copia lecture, he remained at Oxbow for a ten-day teaching residency with the high-school juniors and seniors enrolled in the school’s semester-long, residential fine arts program.
Bey spoke last week in Napa’s Copia theater in the next-to-the-last installment in a community lecture series sponsored by The Oxbow School. Oxbow students filled the theater’s front rows, many with sketch pads before them, documenting the evening. Students having been working with Bey, an artist-in-resdience at the school, for ten days.
The Oxbow Spring Lecture Series concludes Monday, April 14 with Lawrence Rinder, Dean of the College at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco. Mr. Rinder’s presentation begins at 7 p.m. in the Copia thater, 500 First Street in Napa.
Following the lecture, school director Stephen Thomas invites guests to his home on the campus of the visual arts school for a reception and discussion with Mr.Rinder.
Additional information is available by calling Phoebe Brookbank at (707) 255-6000.
Link : To view all photos from the lecture.