Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities is the fifth book in Aperture’s Photography Workshop Series, and it’s a worthy entry to the collection. I’ve learned a few things from the other books in the series—Todd Hido on Landscapes, Interiors, and the Nude, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb on Street Photography and the Poetic Image, Larry Fink on Composition and Improvisation, and Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment—and while I’m not a portrait photographer, not much anyway, I’ve gleaned some good insights from Bey through this book.
I’d heard of Bey before, but don’t recall seeing his work before, and to encounter it for the first time in such an intimate sort of setting is just right, I think. A book of this size is just right to look at the work closely, while still giving room to breathe and listen to what Bey has to say. Of course, most of his work is intended for the gallery, with print sizes approaching 40×60 or greater, and so little dinky prints a tenth of the size or less in a small book such as on Photographing People… won’t have near the impact or presence of the prints on the wall, but still. Bey works to find pictures of people’s interior lives, to make present what is often kept private, and this comes out, even in photographs of such a (relatively) small size.
That’s probably the key thing, the thing that Bey continually reminds readers of: portraits are pictures of people, not things. And people, unlike things, have hopes, dreams, fears, internal landscapes that inanimate objects simply don’t have. Bey encourages working to find something, a glance or gesture, that points to the person, something more than their clothes or hair or the background or whatever. Most often, in Bey’s work, especially the more recent work, this glance or gesture points to a quiet, contemplative interiority. His later portraits of High School students, in particular, feature very little of the cockiness or flirtatiousness that I remember from my cohort back then, but more of what I guess most of us—me, the melancholic type, certainly—were like in private: quiet, introspective, melancholic.
I’m not sure this is entirely what the people Bey photographs are all about, what any people are all about really, but it’s what Bey wants to show, this thoughtfulness and vulnerability, what is so lacking from most popular depictions of African American and Latinx students—Bey’s main subjects—and Kendrick Lamar’s nice-guy rap notwithstanding.
Anyway. Bey also talks quite a bit about the work itself, getting funding, finding sponsors and exhibition spaces and the like. He reminisces about working with Polaroid—he used a 20×24 Polaroid camera for a decade—and approaching museums and foundations to see about funding projects. It really is all about connections, who you know and, more importantly perhaps, who knows you.
… you have to do some of what I call, “pressing all the buttons,” reaching out to professionals to keep them updated on your work. It’s kind of like getting on an elevator and hitting all the buttons. This could mean different things…. Whatever, just press the buttons. If you press them, and three opportunities come up, that’s probably as much as you can do. If only one comes up, do that one and then press all the buttons again. Even if the process is frustrating, a box of prints is better put to use in the office of an editor or a curator, who may or may not be looking at it, than under your bed. [emphasis mine.]Bey, Dawoud. on Photographing People and Communities. Aperture; New York, 2019. p. 93
Indeed. If, of course, you’re wanting to get your work in front of people and your poorly-viewed blog isn’t cutting it. If you’re happy with your desk job and just trying to be a happy snapper and bad writer, then that’s fine enough and good for you: you’ll still benefit from Bey’s discussion of working with people, of not being afraid to move them to a more interesting backdrop, to exhibit and encourage relaxation, comfort, openness. People tend to stiffen up for portraits, and the last thing you probably want is stiff-looking subjects… unless that’s exactly what you want.
Bey made a series of photographs of couples, people pulled from different social and cultural strata at a particular institution: the provost and a janitor; a professor and a Buddhist monk. He purposefully paired people who didn’t know each other, and asked them to look natural and comfortable together or something. It didn’t work. Most of the pictures he shares from the project feature people who appear to be very uncomfortable being next to and immortalized alongside the other person. This may merely be the moment he chose to capture, though I recognize the look on the faces of many of the people and it’s not a momentary expression. This is, though, the picture (pictures) he chose to share from the project, and as I looked for this picture, I came across many many others from the project where the participants looked thoroughly comfortable and at ease, so… There is some shaping of the narrative at work here, I think, but that’s what you do, I guess.
Of course, the emotion ‘I don’t want to be here, next to this person’ is mostly an interior emotion, and Bey is interested in, nay, his whole career, more or less, has centered around “visualizing the human community in a broad range of contexts” (ibid, 12), so these strangely different couples portraits are definitely in there. They just have a much different feel to his early street work, his studio work, his incredible Polaroids, or the later “Birmingham Project.”
Sure, most of his work is individual portraits. Even the Birmingham Project, which features pairs of portraits of 14 year old girls and 64 year old women, 11 year old girls and 61 year old women, 13 year old boys with 63 year old men, or 16 year old boys with 66 year old men to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Church and its aftermath, is single portraits, paired together after the fact. And the large format, multi-panel, 20×24 Polaroid group portraits are essentially single portraits that sort of overlap with or cut each other off. They’re sort of individual portraits of various members of a group who happen to be near one another at the time of capture. But that can’t be the reason some of the photographs from his Strangers/Community project look so different from his earlier and later work.
He speaks about this some, acknowledges the difficulty some people had sitting for the portraits: “I needed both people to buy into what I was trying to do and to be fully and comfortably present. Sometimes people just couldn’t do that…” (ibid, 98-99). And he shot them anyway, thanked them for their time, and ended up using some of the pictures, it seems. More power to him: it’s his project and he’s a famous, MacArthur fellow and artist with many books, exhibitions, and credits to his name. I’m sure I read too much into people’s expressions. though, if I read to much into the expressions of these gentlemen or these lovely people, then maybe I also miss the point of the entire rest of Bey’s work, which almost entirely relies on expression, gesture, to drive the work. So maybe, just maybe, the Strangers/Community project had a bit of heavy-handedness in it, if the few pictures he shared in on Photographing People… or that I found in a Google Image Search are any indication.
I’m 95% behind Bey’s work: he’s a master of portraiture in a long lineage going back to Rembrandt and before, and if I could find a catalog of the Polaroid group pictures, I’d snap it up in a heartbeat.* Shoot, even though 20×24 Polaroid is long gone, I’m tempted to try some with the Impulse SE and its closeup lens, maybe use a whole pack of 8 to make a sort of modest odalisque-type portrait of my darling, adorable wife or something, and despite the spot in one corner that I can’t seem to get rid of. Seems like it could be fun. The earlier Harlem U.S.A. work is incredible as well, and if I find a book of that work somewhere, I might add it to the collection. If all on Photographing People and Communities did for me was to introduce me to Bey’s work and multi-panel Polaroids, it would be worth the price of admission, but the additional workshop aspect of it is a worthwhile bonus.
There are tidbits about posing and lighting, about finding subjects and funding and just getting after it, just doing the work. “Making art has never been the safest or easiest pursuit. … Every photographer is faced with creative challenges, as well as the realities of having to somehow maintain a practice during times of economic uncertainty.** Making art is an act of faith.” (ibid, 120) One of the big things Bey emphasizes is community, building a network of mutual support, finding people with whom to share encouragement, to challenge and be challenged by, though community isn’t the end all and be all. “Some of the opportunities you see will come out of your community, and others you will have to create, not only for yourself but indeed for others.” There’s a fair amount of grit, to use a passe term, involved in it, just as much as there is cooperation and mutual aid.
I struggle with this community bit in my own picture making. Since my employer closed its local office in 2017, I’ve become quite withdrawn, not that I was the most social or outgoing anyway. And with the pandemic in full swing here in the last half of 2020, there’s precious little community to be had, if I even had the social skills to manage it. I understand the importance, the necessity of community. I have no doubt on that score. It’s my own ability to participate in community, to take part, to contribute and benefit from, to ask for help when I need it, that I doubt.
Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities is another great entry in Aperture’s Photography Workshop Series, and overall I rate it a solid 4 stars.
You can easily find a copy of on Photographing People and Communities direct from Aperture, and if you wait a bit, some will probably appear on the used market. But don’t delay. Most of the other books in the series are out of print and can be hard to find now, and it’s cheap enough brand new. You might even be able to find a copy at your local library, or through inter-library loan. It’s worth a look, I think, even if it’s not your thing or you don’t want to buy one.
* I did, in fact, find a catalog of Bey’s Polaroid portraits… expect an unboxing video soon and a review sometime… I may rush it out, just so these are together. I’ll see when it arrives.
** or, I might add these days, global pandemic and sheltering-in-place.