Home Entertainment Review | Dawoud Bey turns to landscape, well trodden and haunted

Review | Dawoud Bey turns to landscape, well trodden and haunted

Review | Dawoud Bey turns to landscape, well trodden and haunted


RICHMOND — The horizon is a rare event in the landscape photographs of Dawoud Bey, one of this country’s preeminent photographers, whose previous work has been mainly focused on portraiture.

You can see a bit of the line where earth meets sky in the background of “Conjoined Trees and Field” from “In This Here Place,” a series that documents the landscape of slave plantations along the lower Mississippi River. Perhaps there’s a suggestion of horizon at the far end of a gash of illuminated water in another image, “Irrigation Ditch,” from the same series, which looks like a wound or fissure in the land, and may reference a 1951 Robert Frank photograph called “Street Line/New York.”

How do you think we’re doing? Take a short survey about the new Style.

Not until a photograph called “Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky),” perhaps inspired by the poetic seascape photographs that Hiroshi Sugimoto has been making for decades, do you see the horizon in its full, linear expanse, a just barely perceptible line separating fields of gray sky from churning water. That image is the last in a 2017 series called “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” which documents sites along the Underground Railroad, ending with a view of Lake Erie, where enslaved people embarked for Canada and freedom.

Both series, and a new one called “Stony the Road,” are on view in an engrossing exhibition titled “Dawoud Bey: Elegy” at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Bey works in black and white, making richly textured silver gelatin prints. The luminosity and depth of these images is increasingly a rarity in photography, now dominated by the flat, brilliant precision of digital printing. The traces of light captured in silver gelatin prints seem to hover in planes just below the surface of the paper, and Bey is a masterful printer, such that his photographs often feel three-dimensional, as if the leaves of a tree in the foreground are literally closer to the surface of the photograph than the dark of the forest behind them.

Bey, who is African American, also makes large prints, mimicking the heroic scale of America’s great, romantic landscape photographers, but the impression his images leave is very different. Bey’s camera never commands or dominates the landscape, never incorporates its breadth or depth. It doesn’t surveil, scan or survey, and though he often focuses on the ground — earth carpeted with leaves and pathways through dark places — you never feel as if the images are made from on high.

When the Roman empire was African

Rather, he looks into and through the landscape, as ordinary people do when they walk amid it. He captures details, sometimes nervously, as one might when exploring an unknown trail or taking a new way home at nightfall. Vines cross your path, a leaf dances in a pinprick of sun, a patch of turbid water like polished gunmetal promises a clearing in the distance. This leaves the impression that you are seeing the world not as the camera sees it, but through the eyes of someone standing exactly where the camera stands. Nature is processed not with a lens, shutter, paper and chemicals, but through the alchemy of another person’s psyche. It is haunted.

“All of this work is made intentionally from a vantage point that relates to the close and intimate encounter of that space for those enslaved Africans who were moving through those spaces,” says Bey in a catalogue interview.

The Southern landscape as haunted is territory rich with possibilities. Sally Mann has made spectral trees and forests befogged with darkness into metaphors for the unresolved traumas of history. The mug shot muteness and formality of Bey’s portraits of slave cabins from “In This Here Place” recall the images of vernacular structures photographed by William Christenberry. The decision to document sites along the Underground Railroad at night for the 2017 series “Night Coming Tenderly, Black” echoes the work of Jeanine Michna-Bales, who has been making nocturnal images of these places for more than a decade for her thoroughly researched “Through Darkness to Light” project.

Bey’s work is distinguished not so much by its conceptual novelty as by its perfection of finish, its reticence and its invitation to spiritual work on the part of the viewer. The printing is extraordinary, especially the limits-of-perception clarity of the images made at night, in which Bey is explicitly wrestling with the virtuoso precedent of Roy DeCarava when it comes to printing dark tones.

This level of finesse seals the world in photographs of curious silence. If you were to approach these images without knowledge of what they represent, they could be anything. The slave cabins might well be any worker’s home, humble, shabby, solid, even inviting if you imagine the smells and sounds of domestic life within. Any photograph divorced of its caption, its provenance or metadata, exists in a realm of extended possibility. We can imprint almost any meaning we wish.

The Met reopens its European galleries, refreshed

Bey’s work, which focuses on places where African Americans experienced the worst traumas of slavery, is particularly disciplined in its refusal to be explicit. The exhibition catalogue quotes historian Robin D.G. Kelley about art and messaging: “The most radical art is not protest art but works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling.”

Bey’s work envisions, through the literal darkness of night and the metaphorical darkness of lost time and people, new ways of seeing. By scrubbing out the telltale signs of the modern world and framing this work as images of the world as seen by enslaved people, Bey creates a spiritual invitation. This is what the ancestors saw, and if we can see the world through their eyes, perhaps we can feel the world they felt.

Taking up that invitation, of course, requires one to believe, or pretend to believe, that we can find connection with people who are long dead. Even if you don’t believe that is possible, the work still stands as a determined effort to elicit an active empathy.

Indeed, the world Bey depicts is even more bleak if you don’t believe there’s any hope of communing with the people who walked these paths. When we look on these places of pain, we see a landscape that can never be redeemed. Yes, it witnessed trauma, but that trauma can never be healed because those who felt it are simply dust among the leaves and humus in the soil. No matter how unflinchingly we stare at the sorrow of human existence, the ancestors are simply gone, and nature is always indifferent. We haunt the land, not the other way around.

Dawoud Bey: Elegy is on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through Feb. 25. vmfa.museum.


Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here