Collection Explore
Essay
Dayna Joseph ’19
on Dawoud Bey’s Harlem, U.S.A. series, 1975–1979
2017 40 1 pr w02
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Dawoud Bey (born New York, New York, 1953)
A Man and Two Women after a Church Service [from Harlem, U.S.A.], 1976, printed 2016
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography
2017.40.1

Dayna Joseph ’19
Skidmore College

Born in Queens, New York, to Harlemite parents, Dawoud Bey spent much of his childhood in Harlem. Bey first began thinking about the neighborhood from an artistic perspective when he journeyed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition Harlem on My Mind. A collection of photographs that purported to represent daily life in Harlem, the exhibition was protested by activists who argued the display was ill-researched and presented a series of ethnographic documents instead of a creative celebration of life in Harlem.

Fueled by the Met’s exhibition, Bey began traversing Harlem’s streets, reacquainting himself with the neighborhood beyond his childhood encounters. Beginning in 1975 and throughout that decade, he captured the community with his handheld Leica camera, gifted to him by his godmother. While the twenty-five portraits that became Bey’s Harlem, U.S.A. series (1975–1979) and the works in the Harlem on My Mind exhibition share a common subject—daily life in Harlem—Bey’s photographs radiate with a more credible authenticity. They made their public debut in 1979 at The Studio Museum in Harlem, which, unlike the Met’s show, surrounded by the Upper East Side’s predominantly white and wealthy community, resonated with the photographs’ subjects. Exhibited in the environment in which it was conceived, Harlem, U.S.A. was within reach of the subjects themselves.

Bey’s street photographs honor the ordinary lives of Harlem and its residents. The photographs present Harlem as it was in the 1970s, retaining the characteristics that made Harlem’s streets unique to any other part of the city. In A Man and Two Women after a Church Service (1976), for example, two women, decked out in their fine furs, decorative hats, and leather shoes, exude grace and pride standing on a garbage-stained street. Here, elegance exists because of imperfections, not in spite of it.

2017 40 4 pr w02
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Dawoud Bey (born New York, New York, 1953)
Two Young Girls in Front of Lady D's [from Harlem, U.S.A.], 1976, printed 2017
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography
2017.40.4

Finding beauty in what others might edit out permeates throughout Bey’s work and parallels many of my own experiences in Harlem. My parents spent years growing roots in Harlem with their extended families, but moved to the suburbs after I was born. Like Bey, I spent the majority of my childhood in Harlem, despite living elsewhere, because that was where I found family and friends. In retrospect, Harlem represents home to me in ways other places I have lived never could, despite the crime, violence, and hopelessness that often plague its reputation, all of which I have experienced personally. Comparably, in Harlem, U.S.A., Bey avoids focusing on the neighborhood’s difficulties. Instead, he highlights the strength of two young black men relaxing on a stoop, the innocent sass of two little black girls posing in front of Lady D’s Ice Cream, and the pride of a professional standing self-assuredly in his barbershop. These enduring images feel just as comfortable to me in 2018 as they did to Bey and his contemporaries when they were first printed nearly forty years ago; they feel like home.

Bey admits today that change in Harlem is unavoidable.(1) The neighborhood’s establishments and people continue to transform and thrive despite decades of mistreatment, subjugation, and gentrification. At its core, Harlem today, just like in the 1970s, focuses incessantly on the idea that good is enhanced by bad, and what some may call undesirable to others serves as a reminder of progress made and future potential. The essence of Harlem, U.S.A. reflects the longstanding qualities that continue to make Harlem an exceptional place.

2017 40 5 pr w02
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Dawoud Bey (born New York, New York, 1953)
Deas McNeil, the Barber [from Harlem, U.S.A.], 1976, printed 2017
gelatin silver print
The Jack Shear Collection of Photography
2017.40.5

Cite this page

Originally published in Accelerate: Access & Inclusion at The Tang Teaching Museum 2 (2018). Joseph, Dayna. “Dayna Joseph on Dawoud Bey’s Harlem, U.S.A. series, 1975–1979.” Tang Teaching Museum collections website. (https://tang.skidmore.edu/collection/collection/explore/141-dayna-joseph)

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Give a damn.
Exhibition
Dawoud Bey
Artist
2017 40 4 pr w02
Two Young Girls in Front of Lady D’s [from Harlem, U.S.A.]
Artwork
2017 40 1 pr w02
A Man and Two Women after a Church Service [from Harlem, U.S.A.]
Artwork
2017 40 2 pr w02
Two Young Men [from Harlem, U.S.A.]
Artwork
2017 40 5 pr w02
Deas McNeil, the Barber [from Harlem, U.S.A.]
Artwork
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