This is Randall Burkett and Kevin Hatcher, being photographed at the University of Washington Tacoma. Randall, meet Kevin. Kevin, meet Randall.
  • Courtesy of Dawoud Bey
  • This is Randall Burkett and Kevin Hatcher, being photographed at the University of Washington Tacoma. Randall, meet Kevin. Kevin, meet Randall.

The art career of Dawoud Bey—one of the artists to be included in next year's Whitney Biennial in New York*—begins with someone else's exhibition: Harlem on My Mind, an exhibition that drew picketers back in 1969 when it opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a show about black culture organized by a white institution and a white Jewish curator. It did not include a single artist—it wasn't a black art show, even though it was at an art museum. It was a history and anthropology show instead, with news footage and photographs and archival documentation.

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Bey was 16 years old, growing up in Queens, when he went down to the Metropolitan. Mostly he went to see the protests, not the show itself. But that day, there happened to be no protesters out. So he went in and found the show. It didn't make much of an impression. His parents had met in Harlem. In many ways, Harlem was his ancestral land. But he didn't get to know Harlem through Harlem on My Mind, even though he did spend time studying the photographs of neighborhood studio photographer James Van Der Zee (later enshrined as a fine artist, but not necessarily originally working in that highfalutin mode). What Bey learned about Harlem from the Met was that Harlem was not found at the Met. Bey would have to find Harlem for himself.

A few years later, he began the series Harlem, U.S.A., which became his first major exhibition, at the then-young Studio Museum in Harlem. (His show was in 1979, and the museum, an artistic extension of the Civil Rights movement, had just been founded in the late 1960s.) He photographs people, and he applies the metaphor of each individual's internal and external life to his photographer's stance as both an insider and an outsider.

Although he grew up in Queens, his parents met in Harlem. Bey approached Harlem like a partner and equal. He wanted to remain the artist and creator of his photographs, but he didn't want to act as the all-knowing portraitist—because he wasn't all-knowing. Rather he opened up the process to overt collaboration. He wanted to give his subjects a chance to stare back into the camera. They decided along with him how they would pose and where they would stand—nobody was "taken" unawares.

He decided that in addition to exhibiting the photographs in a room somewhere other than where they were taken, he would also, always, give his subjects copies of what he made. It was not just a decision based in generosity, as it is with some photographers. It was also a political decision about representation.

Ever since that first experiment in creating a different kind of depiction, Bey has been taking photographs of people. He has continually refreshed how he does it. When he found himself falling into quick-snap cliches of street photography, he switched to a larger-format camera so that even his most hastily chosen subjects, people he stopped on corners or in parks, would have to stop and spend a little time with him (and he with them) while he composed and arranged the shot.

He doesn't ask people about their lives, or about who they are, or try to portray something visually that he's learned verbally. Instead, he just waits, until there's a feeling of comfort between them, the only feeling, he says, that can result in a photograph that contains at least a trace of something true about the person.

Paula Biegelson and Shirley Sims, 2010 pigment print, 40 by 48 inches. Photographed in a Tacoma institution, displayed in a Tacoma institution, strangers until this day, and each gets a copy of the print, which also becomes part of the permanent artwork Strangers/Community.
  • Courtesy of Dawoud Bey
  • Paula Biegelson and Shirley Sims, 2010 pigment print, 40 by 48 inches. Photographed in a Tacoma institution, displayed in a Tacoma institution, strangers until this day, and each gets a copy of the print, which also becomes part of the permanent artwork Strangers/Community.

In Bey's photographs, the people are plainly aware of being looked at. They are people who know that there is a lot at stake in being looked at from the outside. Bey gives them the opportunity to look back.

Bey has a long-term project called Strangers/Community, for which he poses two people together who've never met but who share a community. His latest chosen community was Tacoma, specifically the University of Washington Tacoma.

I found out about the project by accident, talking with a Seattle curator about another artist. UWT hired Bey, without putting out any word (and even without consulting its art department, bizarrely), to create a permanent installation of large, framed photographs, hanging on the wall in the campus's central library.

The photographs are of all kinds of regular people paired up—two people who didn't know each other before they sat down in front of Bey's camera while he silently took their picture. They are named, but they are not "somebodies," except insofar as they are now the subjects of an artwork. (This also binds them together forever, and creates strains of discordance and harmony between them. In the top picture above, both men have basically the same posture but could not look more different in their stances toward the viewer, toward being viewed—one guarded and containing himself with his arms, the other appearing to be on the brink of sternly reaching out of the photograph. In the lower photograph above, of the two women, the same dynamic is going on in reverse, left to right, black to white.)

In the library, there is one such "somebody." He's pictured in a photograph on the wall. It's the only other photograph hanging in the room besides Bey's larger color prints. He's an old white dude in a suit, and his black-and-white photograph is dated 1902. A label says, "Charles Alexander Sayre, Builder of the Snoqualmie Falls Power Company Building," which is the now-library building.

Speaking at the opening of the permanent installation two Saturdays ago, Bey said he was especially pleased at the history of this building.

"It was a power house," he reminded people.

"There's a tendency to make work in one place and show it in a very different place from where it has been made," Bey said. "These photographs here are taken here and shown here... Just ordinary people being worthy of being looked at and represented in the context of mainstream institutional culture."

It sounds so simple.

*The Whitney Biennial, held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York every two years, is supposed to be a survey of American art, but what it really is is a display of what is fashionable in New York art at the moment with a handful of regional outliers thrown in if they can demonstrate or support or augment the fashion in some way. Why is Bey fashionable? It's a good question. There's another Northwest connection on the 2014 Whitney Biennial artist list: HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? is "a global artist collective" with one member based in Seattle, Christa Bell. The collective is unGoogleable. Bell offered only this statement yesterday, promising more details later: "HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? is an evolving collaboration of multi-disciplinary artists of the African diaspora. Members of the collective have lived and worked together, in various iterations, over the last twenty years."

UPDATE: These two photographs were not taken in Tacoma. Bey took them on another stop in the journey of his ongoing Strangers/Community series. Lest you think I've lost my mind or haven't laid eyes on something I'm writing so extensively about, fret not! (At least not completely.) Bey makes many pictures, and not all of them end up on display. He created lots of Tacoma images that aren't part of the library display I saw. I thought these were from those. Still: sorry about the confusion.