Dawoud Bey’s large format polaroid diptych and multi-panel portraits absolutely knock me out. I learned of these from his excellent Aperture Photography Workshop Series title on Photographing People and Communities, and went on a hunt for a book of this work. The only one I could find was Portraits 1975-1995, the catalog from an exhibition that travelled around the US, starting at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1995, and ending at The Newark Museum in July 1997.
When it arrived, to say that I was completely underwhelmed would somewhat understate the case. Most of the proper plates do, indeed, reproduce the Polaroids that I so appreciate, but there are “only” 21 of them, including the diptych on the cover (left panel on the front; right panel on the back), as well as two included as small black & white reproductions in Kellie Jones’ lengthy biographical essay. There are almost as many of these in the Workshop book, and there’s a slight overlap between the two books—one small black & white reproduction in Polaroids appears in color, and at a much larger size, in the Workshop book; some of the more famous ones, Alva, for example. That said, most of them were new to me, and so I shouldn’t complain too much.
Sadly, most of the three-panel portraits fall into the gutter, and I keep thinking I’m missing something. Intellectually, I know all I’m really missing is the border, though two of three images are warped horribly as the whole thing seems about to be tugged down into the void. I know the three pictures should be joined together, and I know that we all prefer larger reproductions, especially of images on a naturally large medium like 20×24 Polaroid, but there must be a better way than printing across the gutter like this. Gatefolds would’ve been preferable, but would’ve made this book somewhat more expensive and difficult to produce. And, no, I’m not a book designer or a publisher or anything, and the designer (Matt Eller) and printers (Wallace Carlson, Minneapolis) did the best they could with the resources they had back in 1995. Overall, the book is well-enough designed and well printed, and, well, it might be a bit text heavy.
Following the Foreword by Kathy Halbreich, then director of the Walker Art Center, and an Acknowledgements page by Bey, we come to Kellie Jones’ “Dawoud Bey: Portraits in the Theater of Desire,” which includes many early black & white 35mm and Type 55 Polaroid images, and is overall informative and reads like a solid grad school essay. Up next, A. D. Coleman is his usual thorough and opinionated self in “Taken Seriously: the Portraits and Street Photographs of Dawoud Bey:” always a pleasure. After the group of large format color Polaroids, there’s “Larger than Life,” a strange sort of very arty and mid-90s bop prosy, from Jessica Hagedorn; and the book ends with an interview with Bey by Jock Reynolds. The last two are un-illustrated, but separated by two Type 55 images. In short, overall, the book is mostly text. I don’t know what all was in the exhibition, and I expect the Center had difficulty securing rights to reproduce some of the images. Most of Bey’s large format Polaroids are in the hands of museums and private collections, as far as I understand.
Anyway. Portraits 1975-1995 is a good, if sorta disappointing (for no good reason), look at Bey’s portraits from the period, and has the most reproductions of the large format Polaroids (as far as I know). Later publications focus on Bey’s work with normal negative and digital media. All of that is excellent, of course, but none really have the splitting and overlapping and playing with time, nor do they have the superlative color of those large format Polaroids.
If you’re into Bey’s large format Polaroid work, as I am, start with the Aperture Workshop Book (reviewed here), and if that book isn’t enough for you—and it won’t be—then hunt down a copy of Portraits 1975-1995. It likely still won’t be enough for you, but as of 2022, I think it’s the best there is.
And in a brief hunt for more, I found Bey talking, briefly, about the Polaroid portraits and it seems there are some Polaroids in Seeing Deeply, the 2018 retrospective book from the University of Texas Press. (I haven’t yet decided whether or not to pick up a copy: more multipanel Polaroids are always welcome, but I’m not too interested in the later work, and for no good reason: it’s all good.) I found some additional images online: there were also several of the multi-panel portraits on view at Stephen Daiter Gallery back in 2018: there’s a pdf with a handful on photoworkshop . com; the Museum of Contemporary Photography has a few from a 1994 show still running on its website; and Google Image Search for the win. But no proper monographs of the work exist, that I can find… If you know of one, please turn me on to it, and thanks in advance. I really love this work and find it deeply inspiring.