New York Magazine
The First Time Dawoud Bey Took a Perfect Photo
“Everything that I know about making photographs comes from this photograph”
dawoud bey’s work is both a documentation and an excavation. The photographer is preoccupied with history and its effects; for nearly five decades, he has been chronicling the America that resides in the shadows and bringing it closer to the center. On April 17, the Whitney opens “An American Project,” a retrospective of his portraits, landscapes, and street photography— including this picture, which Bey made in Harlem when he was just starting out.
i would say that everything that I know about making photographs comes from this photograph. When I saw this man on Sunday morning on 132nd Street near Adam Clayton Powell, he was standing with a group of maybe three other older men having a conversation. He was a clear visualization of Harlem’s past in the contemporary moment. I only wanted to photograph him, not the group, and I didn’t quite know how to do that yet; I had largely selfeducated myself, looking at the work of James Van Der Zee and Roy DeCarava and Irving Penn. When I got up to them, I couldn’t figure it out, so I said “Good morning” and kept walking.
I was having this intense conversation with myself. The social dynamics involved with photography are about inserting yourself into the lives of the individuals in order to make the photograph you want to make. I realized that if I couldn’t figure this out, I wasn’t going to be able to do, and be, this thing that I imagined myself being. So I turned around and started walking back. I just fixed my gaze on him, and I said, “I really love the way you look. Do you mind if I make a picture of you?” Which is to say, Do you mind if I affirm your presence? It’s the first time that I saw in my work the thing that I was hoping to see. ■