Black-and-white photo depicting a Black man and woman embracing in a park.

Seeing and Being Seen in the Work of Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems

by Fiona Dang

Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue centers the friendship of two inimitable artists. Featuring over 100 works, the current exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum speaks to how these visual storytellers have transformed the history of photography and the photography of history. Through their investigation of beauty, power, and the human condition, Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems establish a presence and place for Black lives in the collective consciousness. 

Weems met Bey in 1976, when she attended his photography class at the Studio Museum in Harlem, a hub of New York’s Black visual art community. They forged a connection based on their shared conviction to make work from their unique perspectives as Black American artists. With a camaraderie spanning over five decades, both have changed the discussion around photography as a medium and an art form. Organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum, this traveling exhibition thematically frames Bey and Weems’ oeuvres, bringing their artistic and critical contributions into conversation. 

“In Dialogue” begins with tracing their aesthetic approaches to a lineage of photographers who have sought to represent the complexity and interiority of Black lives. In the wake of the civil rights movement, the photography collective Kamoinge Workshop emerged in 1963 — among many other collectives and arts organizations — to address institutional discrimination, catalyze artistic careers, and define the terms of Black imagery. Bey and Weems have expanded on its values, notably the work of the collective’s first director and photographer Roy DeCarava (1919–2009). DeCarava presented the lived experiences of Black people with a poetic sensibility, and his treatment of dark tones was conceptually and technically profound. His influence is apparent in the Bey and Weems’ inclinations to the nuances of light and shadow as well as their interpersonal connections to the subjects. 

In the series Family Pictures and Stories (1981–82), Weems took seemingly casual yet intimate snapshots of her extended family. The photographs’ evocative power lies in her narrative voice. The diptych Mom and Dad with Grandkids (1978–84) depicts wholesome moments at home: her nephews squirming on their grandfather’s lap and her grandmother styling her niece’s hair. Within the same frame, Weems adds an entry recalling a potential scene about caretaking. Weems’s diaristic approach adds an affective layer — tenderness, joy, disappointment, annoyance, and in-between feelings that may define social interactions.

“Untitled (Woman and Daughter with Children)” from “The Kitchen Table Series,” 1990, Carrie Mae Weems, American, born 1953, gelatin silver print, 40 x 40 inches, © Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Throughout the exhibition, the multifaceted images of the Black subject move beyond the issues of race and representation to address universal concerns. The Kitchen Table Series (1990) immerses the viewer in a narrative unfolding within the everyday domestic setting. Weems assumes the myriad roles typical of womanhood — mother, friend, lover, breadwinner — while seeking comfort and pleasure in her relationships and with herself. Informed by intersectional feminist thinking, she presents a story of Black female subjectivity, beauty, and desire. 

From his earliest photographs, Bey looked at his subjects with deep empathy and engagement. In the 35mm street photography of Harlem, U.S.A. (1975–79), he affirms the presence of everyday Black people and honors the history of the urban community where his parents met. In Four Children at Lenox Avenue (1977), the interplay of positive and negative space compels the viewer to consider the youths’ sense of agency and connection with one another. 

By the late 1980s, Bey had transitioned from photographing people as he encountered them to collaborating with his subjects in streetscapes, using a 4 x 5 camera affixed to a tripod. Polaroid positive-negative film allowed him to develop formal prints from the negatives and give the instant prints to his subjects, establishing relationships based on consent, reciprocity, and commitment to each other. The portraits showcase self-possessed, innately stylish Black participants — often teenagers and children — free to live their lives and breathe.

“A Young Man Leaning on a Fence,” Brooklyn, NY, 1988, Dawoud Bey, American, born 1953, gelatin silver print, 24 x 20 inches, © Dawoud Bey, courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery.

Whereas Bey pays homage to the urban community, Weems focuses on the complexities emerging from the barrier islands of Georgia and the Carolinas. The images and accompanying texts of Sea Island Series (1991–92) evoke the practices, customs, and beliefs of the Gullah-Geechee culture. Weems presents the cultural markers — music, language, and architecture — that testify to an enduring heritage of the West and Central African descendents of slaves that were brought to the Lower Atlantic states — even in the face of systemic violence. 

Bey and Weems call attention to the gaps in the historical record and give voice to those subjected to erasure. Four works from Weems’s From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried (1995–96) appropriate daguerreotypes of enslaved Black individuals treated as objects of scientific fascination. Weems transformed photographs taken in 1850, commissioned at the time by naturalist Louis Agassiz to corroborate his theories of racial inferiority. Weems contested the white colonial gaze via enlarging, framing, and tinting the images. She overlaid each work with incantations to disrupt the dehumanization of Black lives. 

Bey’s Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017) reimagines the fraught journey along the Underground Railroad from the vantage point of Black fugitives seeking freedom. Bey photographed the sites during the day and darkened them, creating overexposed images. By obscuring details, he grants a sense of protection and freedom to the subject, a technique that resists the typical colonial gaze that surveils and objectifies Blackness in othering ways. The final couplet of Langston Hughes’s poem “Dream Variations” inspired the title and suggests how the darkness of night as a type of space can welcome, defend, and liberate the Black lives: “Night coming tenderly/Black like me.”

“Untitled #5 (Tree Trunk, Picket Fence and, House),” from the series “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” 2017, Dawoud Bey, American, born 1953, gelatin silver print, 48 x 56 inches, © Dawoud Bey, courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery.

Bey bears witness to the intergenerational trauma of racial violence and the resilience of the African American community by contemplating how spaces embody memory. The Birmingham Project remembers the four Black girls who died from the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963 and the two Black boys who also lost their lives to racial violence on the same day. The diptych images portray Birmingham children whose ages were the same as those of the victims at the time of their murder as well as adults 50 years older. Bey completed this series in 2012, the same year as Trayvon Martin’s death. This mediation on the cyclical nature of history and time visualizes the incalculable loss of Black life driven by white supremacy.

“The Birmingham Project: Taylor Falls and Deborah Hackworth,” 2012, Dawoud Bey, American, born 1953, archival pigment prints mounted to dibond, 40 x 64 inches (two separate 40 x 32 inch photographs), © Dawoud Bey, courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery.

Bey and Weems act as interpreters and eyewitnesses, asserting Black history as American history. Through their reflection of personal memories and their reimagining of critical sociocultural events, the past reverberates and resonates with the contemporary moment. Economic and institutional forces — racial global capitalism, political divisiveness, and gentrification, to name a few — shape collective ways of seeing and being. Antithetical to these oppressive, isolating processes, “In Dialogue” asks us to pay attention, question, celebrate, and be present. 

“Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue” was organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The traveling exhibition is on view at the Seattle Art Museum through January 22, 2023.

Note: The author is an employee of 4Culture, an exhibition sponsor.

Fiona Dang (she/her) is a first-generation Chinese American art historian.

📸 Featured Image: Couple in Prospect Park, 1990 (printed 2018), Dawoud Bey, American, born 1953, gelatin silver print, 21 7/8 x17 ½ inches, Grand Rapids Art Museum, museum purchase, 2018.22. © Dawoud Bey, courtesy of Stephen Daiter Gallery.

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