Harlem U.S.A

Dawoud Bey: Harlem, U.S.A
Art Institute of Chicago

For many, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 1969 exhibition, Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, has remained a contentious mounting. At the time of the original exhibition, some felt the show was not art but rather a sociological survey of a community, including an introductory essay written by seventeen-year-old Harlemite, Candice Van Ellison, which had anti-Semitic, anti-Irish and anti-Puerto-Rican sentiments. What resonated most with the audience, was that the exhibition neglected to contextualize the photographs of African American’s as art and included no painting or sculptures by any black artists. Although the exhibition was hotly contested, it made a profound impact on the Queens-born, Chicago-based artist Dawoud Bey. Just six years after the Met’s exhibition he began photographing the community for his series, Harlem, U.S.A.

A Man in a Bowler Hat (1976).
Restaged for the first time in its entirety since first shown at the Studio Museum Harlem in 1975, Harlem U.S.A is a slight departure from the imposing portraits Bey has become renowned for. Consisting of twenty-five photographs — all of which were meticulously edited by Bey — the series is composed of street portraits that, when exhibited together, create a greater picture of Harlem itself. All of the photographs have an essence that seems to suspend time, mixing references to the Harlem of the early 1900s with contemporary urban decay. When the photographs were taken, Harlem was transitioning — as many urban neighborhoods do — from its cultural heyday to its current state. In the exhibition catalog Bey reflected on this evolution: “Every place is simultaneously the place it was and the place that it is. It is the combination of the two that constitutes the deeper meaning, and experience of a place. And so it is with Harlem.”

Harlem U.S.A. has roots in modernist street photography (think Lee Friedlander, Bill Owens, or Cartier-Bresson) but at the same time is intrinsically connected with street fashion photographers such as Bill Cunningham, Amy Arbus, or even Scott Schuman. A Man with a Bowler Hat (1976) — the first photograph in the series and also the photograph that Bey has cited as the instigating piece for pursuing portrait photography — captures a dapper gentlemen in full black tie attire. With his bowler hat cocked slightly to his right, the sitter is cast against a detritus apartment facade. It is these type of framings that occur in Harlem U.S.A. that seem inexplicably disorienting. At times it feels as if the ghosts of Harlem’s past are captured wandering the streets.

Personal style is at the forefront of many of the photographs. It ranges from the “Sunday best” attire that appears in Harlem, NY, (1978), which depicts three women leaning on a police barricade, to an audaciously hip youth in A Boy in front of the Lowe’s 125th Street Movie Theater (1976). Bey’s photographs depict his subjects at ease both in their environment and with the photographer. Although there are a handful of photographs taken of people backs, which feel as if we are following or peering into someone’s life, many are photographed with an assertion of their own hipness. Each sitter lacks an awkward befuddlement that can arise when having one’s photo taken. Bey’s ability to capture his sitter’s natural posturing is seen early on in this series and continues today in his portraits.

Unlike Bey’s work that followed Harlem, U.S.A., the scale of these photographs are small and intimate. They require viewers to treat each sitter with an apt amount of consideration. The Art Institute’s installation of these photographs contradicts this intimacy, as they are hung directly outside the Modern Wing’s Photography and New Media Galleries, what feels like a very open hallway. The audience is distanced from these subtle portraits, creating a rupture in what would be a personal experience. The images themselves, however are timeless portraits of the community and character of Harlem, and are representations of a neighborhood that has been able to embody both the past and present.