Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

Tag: Dawoud Bey

Under the Cover of Darkness: Capturing the Journey

Say you’re an African-American photographer that’s won a MacArthur grant for your evocative portraits. And your images depict young people and the black experience in Harlem and the South.

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

Your photos of everyday people illuminate a sense of the inner person…

from the series Harlem, USA by Dawoud Bey

as your images allow their personalities to shine through.

Then you decide to recreate the experience of escaped slaves making their way to freedom. You focus on capturing their journey on the Underground Railroad. You’re inspired by a Langston Hughes poem that ends, “Night coming tenderly, black like me.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black by Dawoud Bey

You know that escapees found their way to freedom under cover of darkness. The tender blackness of night offered hope and the chance for a safe passage to freedom. But how do you photograph that? For a night journey can also be a time of mystery, danger and the unknown. So how do you capture that in a series of photographs?

Capturing the Journey

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

This was the challenge for photographer Dawoud Bey.

MacArthur Foundation photo

In a NYT profile, Mr. Bey explains:

“I wanted the photographs… to pull you back to the experience of the landscape through which those fugitive black bodies were moving in the 19th century to escape slavery.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

For me, the photos create a strong point of view. They present a glimpse of what you might see if you were moving stealthily across unfamiliar terrain.

Dawoud Bey:

The photographs recreate “the spatial and sensory experience of those moving furtively through the darkness.”

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

I can see how this image evokes a sense of that clandestine journey. I can imagine hiding behind a sheltering tree, scanning the darkness for the way forward. Driven by hope, feeling the danger.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

Or in this one and the one below, seeing the obstacles you might encounter as you move under cover of night, making your way through the shadows.

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

The Underground Railroad that slaves traveled to freedom was a clandestine network of secret routes and safe houses. Escapees that followed it’s path, aided by freed slaves and abolitionists,

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

hoped to reach Canada or a free state where slavery was outlawed.

Encountering “Station Hope”

A way station on the route to Canada lay in Cleveland, Ohio. There, inside St. John’s Episcopal Church, stood “Station Hope.”

St. John’s Episcopal Church

Dawoud Bey:

“St. John’s was the final Underground Railroad station that fugitive slaves, who had made their way to Cleveland, would take refuge before making their way to Lake Erie and then on to freedom in Canada.”

It still stands today, and was chosen as the exhibit site for Dawoud Bey’s photo essay, Night Coming Tenderly, Black.

Night Coming Tenderly, Black exhibit in the church pews. Photo by Field Studio

MacArthur Foundation photo


“To have the work shown in a space that had once been inhabited by fugitive slaves was deeply meaningful.”


Portraying a Tender Space

from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

“It is a tender space through which one moves. That is the space I imagined the fugitive black subjects moving through as they sought their own self-liberation…”

Lake Erie, gateway to Canada, from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black

 “moving through the dark landscape of America and Ohio toward freedom under cover of a munificent and blessed blackness.”

You Become Part of the Experience

I wanted to write about this photo series because, if you spend a little time with the images, I think you can see what Dawoud Bey was trying to express. They have a quietness about them, which I like, and a sense of movement as well. Knowing what the photos are trying to convey, I find they help me imagine what it must have been like to take that perilous journey to freedom. I wonder if they work that way for you too?

If you’re curious about his earlier work, a while back I wrote a piece for The Vision Thing on some of Dawoud Bey’s portraits. You can find it here.

So  what are your thoughts about these photos? Leave a comment and let me know.

Window on the Soul: The Portraits of Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey

Dawoud Bey was hoping to be a jazz drummer when he went to see “Harlem on my Mind” and was struck by the images of everyday people displayed on the museum walls.  As a 16-year-old he’d just received a camera and was inspired to do his own street photography in Harlem.  That collection of work, exhibited in 1979 as “Harlem, USA,” was the beginning of an impressive career exploring the photographic portrait.  A retrospective of “Harlem, USA” is now at the The Art Institute of Chicago. This image “Man in a Bowler Hat” was taken at that time.  

A Man in a Bowler Hat, 1976

Notice the man’s open, friendly and curious expression and how the gesture of his hand at the bottom of the image adds a sense of relaxed  elegance.  Those elements give voice to the subjects’ personality and character and are a hallmark of a Dawoud Bey photograph.

The image below, taken a few years later, has all the elements of his recent color work:  the girl is posed, as are all his subjects, but natural and relaxed.

A Girl in a Deli Doorway, 1988

Unlike street photographers who try to capture an unguarded moment, Bey wants his subjects to participate in the photograph.  “A Girl in a Deli Doorway” is at once simple and complex.  She offers a wistful curiosity tempered by uncertainty.  While she appears open and engaged, she’s also holding back, and partially hidden with her hand closed. Look at the background and framing.  It’s very dynamic, with strong angles that take you into the background and the hard vertical of the wall that brings you back to the girl.

Just capturing a person’s essence with your lens is difficult enough – but working with teenagers?  Once again Bey has a deft touch.  Here are some portraits of high school students from his exhibit, Class Pictures.

This work led to a position as artist-in-residence with Emory 
University.  Part of his time there was spent in portraying the University’s commitment to diversity, called The Emory Project.  To make his point, he posed unlikely couples such as the ones below.

Kali Ahset-Amen, Sociology Grad Student and Geshe Ngawang Phende, Buddist Monk
Paula Biegelsen, Student and Shirley Simms, Custodian
Here’s a link to a video showing Bey working on the Emory Project.  Here’s a link to Bey’s website, which has lots of images of his other work.  In all, you can see a real celebration of everyday people – and a deep respect for honoring their place in the world.  

Dauwoud Bey
I like seeing the world though his eyes and meeting the people who inhabit it.  It reminds me of how much we have in common with each other.  And about those sometimes subtle qualities that we all share on our journey though our days.