- Dawoud Bey born 1953
- Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
- Image: 206 × 302 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2021
Harlem U.S.A is a series of thirty-three black and white silver gelatin prints by Dawoud Bey, all taken on the streets of Harlem, New York between 1975 and 1977 [Tate P82631P82664]. Throughout the photographs Bey captured a wide range of subjects who lived and worked in Harlem, providing a representation of the neighbourhood in the period following the American civil rights and racial justice movements of the 1970s. Compositionally, the images are tightly cropped and the focus of each one is the person or people in the frame. There are several works in the series in which Bey made use of natural light to create a high contrast between light and shadow. Bey shot the photographs on a single-lens reflex camera. Tate’s versions are modern prints made by the artist in 2020 in editions of ten with two artist’s proofs.
The series title clearly indicates that the photographs were taken in Harlem, with each photograph also given a short descriptive title. These titles give the works a sense of place, whilst also suggesting a desire to represent that place through the people who inhabit it. However, the addition of U.S.A to the series title suggests that Bey also wanted to present the images as American. Curator Matthew S. Witkovsky has written that the title ‘points to a grander ambition, not local but national. This vast neighbourhood, too often tagged as deracinated or impossible to picture fairly, is presented by Bey as emblematic of the entire United States – the nation’s substitute capital.’ (Art Institute of Chicago 2012, p.9.)
Harlem U.S.A is also an exploration of photographic portraiture, and of the relationship between artist and subject. As a Black artist working in the United States, Bey had a specific relationship with his subjects. Not entirely empirical nor a nostalgic look at the inhabitants of Harlem, the series sits between the two – a portrayal of Harlem and its inhabitants by an artist who sat within the community he was photographing. The series shows the civic pride and engagement of the population who lived and worked there. The subjects occupy the space in which the photographs are set in a very physical and direct way, with touch becoming a tacit recognition of ownership and belonging. Bey himself stated: ‘When you’re familiar with things, you touch them. It’s your place.’ (Bey, quoted in Art Institute of Chicago 2012, p.16.)
Harlem U.S.A was Bey’s first series of photographs to gain substantial recognition and remains amongst his most exemplary works. First shown in a monographic display at The Studio Museum, Harlem in 1979, the series represents the beginnings of Bey’s photographic practice. Bey has stated that he was influenced by the work of studio photographer James Van Der Zee (1886–1983) who had similarly photographed the Black community of Harlem. Taken during what would come to be termed the ‘Harlem Renaissance’ of the 1920s, Van Der Zee’s portraits of Black subjects show the poise and dignity of his sitters. This interest in the human subject would also come to characterise Bey’s portraiture.
In 1969 Bey had visited the exhibition Harlem on My Mind at The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition was widely criticised for not including Black artists and for its limited engagement with the local community. Bey found the visit to the exhibition inspirational, but also realised that he did not want to present the same reductive image of Harlem that had been on view within the show, stating in an interview:
I knew it wasn’t as simple as pointing a camera at someone in the streets of Harlem. I didn’t have a foundation and I knew I needed to create one for myself … I started off wanting to make a ‘positive’ image of Harlem. Which I came to quickly realize is an overly simplistic way of thinking about it. I ended up making a collective picture of what Harlem actually presented to me rather than validate something I thought I knew about the community.
(Interview with Dawoud Bey, The Chicago Reader, 5 February 2012.)
Matthew S. Witkovsky (ed.), Dawoud Bey Harlem U.S.A., exhibition catalogue, Art Institute of Chicago 2012.
Dawoud Bey, Dawoud Bey: seeing deeply, Austin, Texas 2018.
Corey Keller and Elisabeth Sherman (ed.), Dawoud Bey: Two American Projects, exhibition catalogue, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Whitney Museum of American Art 2019.
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