Dayna Joseph ’19
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.