Bey docks at Columbia

By The Columbia Chronicle

Leslie McClellan

Staff Writer

This Fall, Columbia College welcomes well-known photographer Dawoud Bey. As those familiar with the Museum of Contemporary Photography in the 600 S. Michigan building may know, this is not Bey’s first experience with Columbia.

Bey worked on his first project with high school students in 1993. He shot 20 x 24 inch photos of students at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. and students in the neighboring community of Lawrence, Mass. Bey describes Lawrence as “an economically depressed community, very unlike Andover.” This project was his way of bringing the diverse student bodies and communities together. Denise Miller, Director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, asked him to exhibit the work at Columbia. He accepted and proposed a similar project between Columbia students and Phillips’ sister school, Providence St. Mel, located on the west side of Chicago. The project worked out well and long-lasting friendships were established. Bey and the staff kept in touch over the years and mutually agreed that if the opportunity presented itself, he would come back to Columbia on a long term basis.

This fall, Bey has returned as a part-time faculty member.

How did Dawound Bey get started? More importantly, what were his significant challenges and why did he continue through them? Bey was born in Queens, New York in 1953. His parents had lived in Harlem a number of years earlier and were very active in the community. Dawoud was politically active and aware from a very young age. At 14 years old, his grandmother gave him an Argus C3 camera that had belonged to his late grandfather. “I was taking it to be polite, really,” remembers Bey.

Approximately a year later, there was a photo exhibition at the Metro Museum of Art in Harlem, entitled “Harlem On My Mind.” There was much controversy in the community regarding the almost completer exclusion of art by African-Americans with the exception of James Van Der Zee. Bey went to see the exhibit because of the controversy, not the photography. “That’s when I really got a sense of the impact that a photograph could have on the culture [and] on the viewer, so that’s how I got started.”

Bey became concerned with stereotypes surrounding black people in the arts. He believes there are basically two types of people that are focused on in the African-American community. The “problematic aspects,” portrayed in the popular media and imagination, include drug dealing, gang activity, and other sorts of thievery. The other side, equally as stereotypical, are those who have managed to “rise above all of this madness to escape to a better life,” overlooking the fact that there are people carrying on constructive lives within their community.

From 1974 to 1979, Bey taught himself to be a photographer. In the beginning he took street shots of people, snapping and then running away. He considered this type of street photography a form of mugging. He then learned to take pictures with a type of Polaroid camera, so that his subjects could have a copy immediately. In 1979, he held his first one-man exhibit in Harlem. “There is a tendency for photographers to make pictures somewhere, then take them somewhere else to show them or publish them so that people can look at them and basically marvel at how different they are from the people in the photographs,” says Bey. By keeping his photos in the community, Bey discovered that he could develop a relationship between a community and an institution.

Most people focus only on the aspect of African-American pride within Bey’s work. He challenges us to see past that; there are formal and conceptual aspects to his photography which deserve equal attention. Most pictures focus on taking one moment out of time. He wants to take several moments out of time. He focuses on the shifting of the human body and how the human eye sees thing versus how the camera does. His works represent the psychological and emotional aspects of teenagers. “I’m interested in looking at things. I use the camera to do something we are generally not able to do in the course of spatial interaction. People say, don’t stare. Through the photos, not only do I stare, but I allow viewers to stare at the subject to see things that they cannot see with a casual glance.”

Aside from being a photographer, Bey is a freelance writer and a drummer (currently looking for somewhere to play in Chicago). He says the only way for someone to keep doing what they are doing is to have passion for their work. “The work has to matter to you. It has to come out of things you are interested in, things you care about, things that upset you, things that make you feel good, [or] things you think people need to know. If it comes from a real place personally, I think you’ll be able to sustain it.”

The most difficult challenge for Dawound Bey and possibly for any artist is to have faith in the work. “Making the decision to become an artist, to value the work that you are doing, that much is a real act of faith. There’s no telling what’s going to happen. I think if one does the work, everything else kind of falls into place. When you begin, you can stop and the world won’t stop turning but you continue to make your work until someone does begin to pay attention.”

Students planning to corner Dawound Bey and ask him if he thinks they have talent, prepare yourselves. Pick up the book “Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making,” by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Bey read a passage frot you need to produce your best work. There is probably no clearer waste of psychic energy than worrying about how much talent you have and probably no worry more common… Even at best, talent remains a concern, and those who rely upon that gift alone, without developing further, peak quickly and soon fade to obscurity.” Bey wants all artists to know that constant work decides the future, not this thing called talent.