This interview with Dawoud Bey is the first in a series of conversations with important contemporary artists hosted by Valerie Cassel Oliver, Editor in Chief of the Benezit Dictionary of Artists, and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the VMFA. Read more about Bey's work and influence here.
Valerie Cassel Oliver (VCO): In categorizing artists and their practice, historians and curators often use shorthand, flattening an artist’s practice of sense of self. What is that aspect of yourself or practice that often gets overlooked?
Dawoud Bey (DB): As an artist who works primarily making photo-based work, I think historians and curators often forget that the work is not just about its content—the what—but also about the how, the making part, the how the photographic object comes into being, given the range of material and choices that can be made. A photograph is an object, not just a picture of a thing, whatever that may be, and those choices are a part of the meaning of the photograph.
VCO: Have you experienced a marked shift in your work since the onset of the pandemic? What has that shift looked like or felt like…how does it manifest, visually/sonically/gesturally?
Portrait of Dawoud Bey
DB: It’s been majorly disruptive, coming as it did in the midst of the work I was making at the time in Louisiana, then having to put that work on an extended pause, then come back to it in a radically transformed environment, from one in which I had been basically travelling at will, to being extremely reluctant to travel and engage with people at all. Particularly with the film that I was making, it was hard to pick up the thread of continuity after almost two years away from the site where I had been filming. It was a long slow crawl back, and everything feels different in the aftermath—and continuation—of the pandemic. I did use the extended time at my desk to complete two essays, one for a museum collection publication forthcoming from the Art Institute of Chicago about a Roy DeCarava photograph that I’ve loved for a long time, and another for a new edition of a book of Gordon Parks’s photographs that the Gordon Parks Foundation is doing with Steidl, looking at his Alabama photographs from 1956. I’d been thinking about the works of both photographers and wanted to highlight aspects of their work that I think are important but haven’t been sufficiently noted or amplified. I enjoy writing, but never have as much time as I’d like to be able to write, so the extended time of not making photographs or film was good for that.
VCO: How do you see yourself/work as reflective of the world around you?
DB: From the very beginning I have sought to make work that engages the very real social world, while also engaging in a rigorous “making” process of art making, figuring out how to make the things I care about resonate in the world. I’ve never thought that being an artist exempts me from any of the responsibilities of mindful citizenship, so I try to bring the world into my work, in different—but very real—ways, in order to provoke a conversation.
VCO: What remains a consistent in your practice?
DB: What I believe has remained consistent in my work over these several decades has been a desire to remain engaged in the world while also continuing to be in a rigorous conversation with the history of picture making and art making, and adding something to that conversation. How to do this while remaining open to new expressive forms has continued to push me forward.
Dawoud Bey: Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, Birmingham, AL, from The Birmingham Project, 2012. Pigmented inkjet prints, 40 × 64 in. each (101.6 × 162.56 cm each). Rennie Collection, Vancouver. © Dawoud Bey
VCO: Who, living or dead, do you most admire? What question would you ask them?
DB: That would have to be my late mother and father. Without any idea as to how I might sustain myself, they always were encouraging of my creative pursuits. My mother let me set up my first darkroom in her kitchen after everyone went to bed, with a promise to clean up before she woke up in the morning. And my parents both put up with band rehearsals in the living room (and then the basement) when I was a drummer. I can only imagine the level of noise. The neighbors would sometimes complain, so you can imagine what it sounded like in the house. A Fender Rhodes electric piano, drums, electric bass, electric guitar, a horn section, and one or two percussionists! In the summer months we moved to the patio outside. They never complained, giving me the support and confidence that are my foundation.
I already asked my mother when she was alive how she put up with it. She said, “Well at least your father and I knew where you and your brother were, and that you weren’t getting into anything.” There were a lot of things going on in the streets that might have swallowed us up, but music, and being able to practice at home, was our anchor.
VCO: How has the field changed since the time you first entered?
DB: It used to be, when I started, that there was “the photography community” and “the art world,” two distinct communities, with the photography community being much smaller and formally held together by a few organizations and photography-exclusive institutions that supported the medium, and that one could become a part of. The two have become a lot more enmeshed in each other. The art world, as such, has also gotten much bigger, and the stakes are much higher. It’s also become far more professionalized. I came into the field before it was seriously professionalization, that is before the academic art industry was fully and pervasively in place. When I was an undergrad at the School of Visual Arts in the mid-1970s, none of my professors had MFAs or even BFAs, with the exception probably of those who taught art history. But those who taught the studio classes, most of them had worked alongside some of the more notable figures of the day, as apprentices or assistants, or simply as colleagues, learning the craft by immersing themselves in the field. That is no longer true, and the MFA has become pretty much a de rigueur credential for a young artist looking to get themselves situated in the field. The economy of the art world has certainly changed wildly since I came into the field. The idea that a photograph—of any size—could sell for six figures or more was beyond the imagination.
Most of the photographs that went into museum collections when I started in the 1970s and 80s were donated by the photographer, usually as part of a “we’ll purchase one if you’ll donate two” kind of deal, with the understanding that being in the collection was more important than the couple of hundred dollars you might be paid for the prints. If you cooperated, the prints might be included in a recent acquisition show, or if it was MoMA, if the head of the Photography Department really favored your work, he might write you a Guggenheim recommendation. So we all knew these things. There were very few opportunities to find your work in a museum, especially as an emerging photographer, and in the photography community that I came up in, MoMA was the pinnacle of where you hoped to end up, since the Photography Department there was pretty much shaping the field of photography as a fine art, and they had a reputation for always looking at work. They even had a portfolio drop off day where anyone could drop their work off for review. They looked at every single portfolio that came through, and work sometimes came into the museum that way, or encouragement and criticism was offered. That would never happen today.
VCO: What thing/action continues to elude you?
DB: I can’t say that there is anything that had eluded me, since I’ve tried to actively engage all of the ideas and things that I’ve thought about doing.
Dawoud Bey: Max, Celia, Ramon and Candida, New York, NY, 1992. Three dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid), 30 × 67 7/8 in. overall (76.2 × 167.64 cm). Collection of Candida Alvarez. © Dawoud Bey
VCO: If you could change anything about the art world today, what would it be?
DB: Well, there are actual multiple arts worlds, and they don’t all have to function the same way. There is the art world of multimillion dollar objects being bought and exchanged, often for extreme profit, as investment vehicles. Most artists will never participate in that art world. There is the art world of smaller regional museums and institutions with their boards and patrons that seek to provide support to an art community close to home. There’s the art world of private and public philanthropy, that seeks to join the art community in a broader intentional social conversation. And there are others. I simply hope that all of those art worlds find a way to continue to value what art adds to our lives in ways that are both tangible and ephemeral, and that we continue to find ways for artists to remain viable as they pursue their calling. Sustaining a career as an artist has never been easy, and more than anything, I think, it requires finding and sustaining a community of support over many years.
VCO: Who do you most admire as an artist and person?
DB: Well, I never met him personally, but John Coltrane fits that category. He was one of my first creative awakenings when I was still a musician. The rigor and ongoing evolution of his music, and his statement that he wanted his music to be a “force for good” deeply influence me early on, and still informs the rigor of my own work, and my desire to make something equal to the experience I had when I first heard his music, with “A Love Supreme.”
VCO: What platform or mode of communication feels most apt for you…and has this changed over time?
DB: Not sure what “mode of communications” means here, but I’m completing these questions in written form, and I’m very comfortable in the space of writing. So it’s probably that. Over the years I’ve done quite a bit of writing, everything from music and book reviews when I was young to essays that I’ve written more recently.
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #17 (Forest), from Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017. Gelatin silver print, 44 × 55 in. (111.8 × 139.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art; purchase, with funds from the Photography Committee in honor of Sondra Gilman 2020.29. © Dawoud Bey
VCO: What are your hopes for your future? What might you fear?
DB: I’ve been blessed to be able to do pretty much everything that I wanted to do as an artist, and to be substantially recognized for the work I’ve done, both as an artist and for the generations of students I've taught and mentored. I would hope to continue to add something meaningful to the conversation around what it means to be an artist and citizen.
I tend to operate with a kind of contagious optimism, so no matter how dark things get, I don’t believe in facing the future with fear, but with faith…and intention.
VCO: What other discipline feels most synchronistic to your practice?
DB: Definitely music. I’ve been a practicing musician, and musicians that I admire have most frequently been the model for my own continually evolving practice. John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Prince. I’d put Bruce Springsteen in there too, for the way he has kept the American social landscape a constant subject in his work.
VCO: If you were not an artist…what profession would you most likely take up?
DB: Well, I guess I already took it up when I was a drummer.
VCO: What thing about you is not evident in your work, but defines so much of how you move through the world?
DB: Roy DeCarava once said, “You should be able to look at me and see my work. You should be able to look at my work and see me.” I think I would say the same.
VCO: What parting words would you most like to share with our readers?
DB: Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.—former pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem—used to end his sermons and remarks by exhorting those assembled to, “Keep the faith, baby!” That’s good enough for me.