On The Run: Interview with Dawoud Bey
Erik Nielsen: Your latest book Seeing Deeply is fantastic. It showcases your mastery of portraits and street photography. What led to the sudden transition into photographing landscapes for Night Coming Tenderly, Black?
Dawoud Bey: From 2014 to 2017 I worked on a project Harlem Redux. That was the first time I turned away from humans as the main subject of my work and instead began looking at how to describe some aspect of place and space and, in that case, the way in which the landscape of Harlem was being physically transformed through the forces of gentrification and the influx of global capital.
Erik: The title of this series reference’s a line in the Langston Hughes poem “Dream Variations”. Why did you feel it necessary to make the link between your work and his? What role has Hughes played in your life?
Dawoud: The last line of Langston Hughes' poem ”Dream Variation” embodies a notion of blackness as a space through which the black subjects moved. It was a space of possibility and not something to be feared. I wanted my work to extend upon the idea that Hughes had had of the darkness of night being a tender embrace. Referencing that line as a title also helps to situate the work inside of a conversation and history of black expressive culture that both Hughes and DeCarava are a part of. They are both a part of my inheritance.
Erik: How does your series work to demystify the myths surrounding the Underground Railroad?
Dawoud: My work is not intended to demystify the myths surrounding the Underground Railroad since they are not documentary photographs, but the project is meant to provoke the imagination around that history. It aims to give it a resonant visualization and make that history come alive in the photographic object.
Erik: As a photographer, is there an obligation on your part to foreground African-Americans and their experience?
Dawoud: I have always made work about the things I know best, and the things that I think are important. So certainly, an African-American, that would include the black subject. Because the black subject has been so often maligned and stereotyped throughout the history of the medium, it behooves me to counter that with something that is not merely a “positive image,” but that suggests the complexity that black people embody.
Erik: What was it about this particular moment in history that you felt it necessary to shine a light on the Underground Railroad and retell it in this contemporary setting?
Dawoud: I am in the midst of a history project that began with my Birmingham Project of 2013. Since then I have wanted to find ways to make various pieces of African-American history resonate in the viewer’s imagination, but that is rooted in that history and then transformed in some way through my own conceptual devices. If one wants to find contemporary meaning in this work, which is about fugitive bodies in flight from extreme persecution, right now there are hundreds of thousands of people fleeing persecution and moving across the global landscape seeking their own freedom.
Erik: Do you ever feel bound to the black experience as an artist and photographer? Have you ever felt as if your work has been pigeonholed in that way, and if so, do you see it transcending narrow categories in the future?
Dawoud: The work produced by black artists runs the full expressive, material, and conceptual gamut, from artists such as Sam Gilliam, Frank Bowling, Ed Clark, Al Loving, Roy DeCarava, Howardena Pindell, and so many others. Considering myself to be an heir to all of that richly varied work, I’ve never had any reason to feel constrained or bound. It actually is quite liberating.
Erik: Can you take us back to the first image you saw that made you want to be a photographer?
Dawoud: While there was no single photograph that made me want to be a photographer, the first photograph that struck me because of its expressive capacity was Roy DeCarava’s “Graduation” (1949), a photograph of a young black girl in Harlem, New York in a beautiful white dress walking through a street and past a vacant lot layered with trash, moving from a beautiful patch of light into the ominous shadow ahead. It was the first time I’d seen such a formally complex photograph about such an ordinary but complexly realized situation involving a black subject.
Erik: What’s a risk you have not yet taken that you want to with your work?
Dawoud: Having worked in so many different ways over the past 40 years, I honestly can’t say there is a challenge or risk I haven’t taken in my work. The recent shift from portraits and the human subject to landscapes was probably the biggest risk I’ve taken so far. I think I’ll just keep following the work, and letting the narrative and the ideas dictate the form. I believe that’s as good a way as any to avoid the trap of habit.
Dawoud Bey’s photography will be exhibited at the upcoming AIPAD Photography Show, whom we have partnered with and opens on April 4. This interview has been condensed and edited. You can read the full interview in our latest issue RISK