Collection Spotlight: Untitled (Chicago), Dawoud Bey


Title: Untitled (Chicago) 

Artist: Dawoud Bey

Nationality: American, b. 1953

Date: 1993

Medium: Polaroid, 24 x 40 inches

Credit: Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art Northwestern University, gift of Sari and James A. Klein in honor of Lisa Corrin and Peter Erickson, 2014.4.5a-b

Chicago-based photographer and educator Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) was recently named a recipient of a 2017 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, commonly referred to as the “genius grant.”  In honor of this recognition, this spotlight focuses on the work Untitled (Chicago) of 1993. This work is one of five photographs by Bey in the Block’s collection. These works were most recently featured in the exhibition Exposure: Recent Gifts of Photography (9/12/2015 – 11/30/2015), where viewers were invited to consider notions of photographic “truth” and the politics of representation.

Throughout his career, Bey has been invested in photographing historically marginalized communities and people of color. Bey cites the controversial 1969 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, “Harlem on My Mind,” as a pivotal moment for the development of his photographic practice.[1]  Harlem U.S.A., Bey’s first large-scale photographic project, was shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979 as a suite of 25 photographs that emphasized the diversity of the neighborhood’s community without encouraging stereotypes.

One of the ways Bey accomplishes this is via sustained engagement with his sitters. The double portrait Untitled (Chicago) was made during Bey’s 1993 residency at Columbia College Chicago and Providence-St. Mel High School, during which he photographed students from both institutions. Through his residency, Bey had the opportunity to work with one of the Polaroid Corporation’s largest and rarest cameras. Measuring 5 feet high by 3.5 feet across and weighing over 200 pounds, it produced images in a little over a minute, not unlike its smaller, more ubiquitous counterparts.[2] With his project Bey created an educational experience for the teenagers, getting to know them well and translating their likenesses into monumental “instant” portraits. The large format of these lushly colored Polaroids allows the sitters’ subjectivity to come through, their direct eye contact with the camera signaling empowerment and highlighting Bey’s desire to reclaim the historically denied right to look for the black subject.[3] The multi-paneled structure shows the subjects at different moments and in slightly different poses, creating a sense of movement across the surface of the works and inviting increased viewer participation in negotiating the deliberate play between “part” and “whole.” Bey has used the diptych structure in the past, particularly in his Birmingham Project (2013), which commemorated the lives of six children killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Here, Bey juxtaposed portraits of Birmingham residents, their ages corresponding either to the ages of children in 1963, or to how old they would have been fifty years later at the time of Bey’s project.

Bey’s other photographs in the Block Museum’s collection are representative of his early career. His Untitled (Syracuse) of 1983 focused on candid street photography, while his Brooklyn prints of 1992 show him engaging in similar themes, but capturing the direct gaze of his subjects. In his recent work, Bey echoes this style of street photography, as in Harlem Redux (2014-2017). Bey returns to Harlem, the site of his first project, this time focusing on the urban changes brought on by gentrification. Through his distinctive approach to photography across his work, which includes deep engagement with his subjects and the creation of projects conceived for specific museums, Bey’s work challenges typical notions of the “institution,” making such spaces inviting and accessible for the communities he is committed to giving a voice.

[1] Bey, Dawoud. “MacArthur ‘Genius’ Dawoud Bey Calls The Award An ‘Affirmation.’” Interview by Jason Mack and Meha Ahmed. Morning Shift, WBEZ Chicago, 23 October 2017.

[2] Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995, exh. cat. (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), 42.

[3] Westerbeck, Colin. “Bey’s People,” Art In America 100 (November 2012), 114.

— Contributed by Graduate Curatorial Fellow, Tamar Kharatishvil (Ph.D. Candidate, Art History)

Block Collection Spotlight invites a closer look at objects in the Block Museum permanent collection from students, staff, faculty, and museum audiences.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply