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CityPASS Home  »  City Traveler Blog  »  ’70s Portrait of Harlem at Art Institute of Chicago

’70s Portrait of Harlem at Art Institute of Chicago

This article was originally published in The New York Times and was written by Gwenda Blair. The exhibition, Dawoud Bey: Harlem, U.S.A., is at the Art Institute of Chicago through Sept. 9.

One day in early 1969, a 16-year-old black high school student from Queens named David Smikle decided to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he had never visited. He’d heard on the radio that people were upset about an exhibition there, “Harlem on My Mind,” and he wanted a firsthand look.

To his disappointment, no protesters were outside the museum, which was under fire for excluding work by black artists in its portrayal of Harlem. But inside he saw something that left an indelible mark: walls plastered with blown-up photographs of ordinary black people that museumgoers seemed to find compelling enough to stand before and examine.

Dawoud Bey/Art Institute of Chicago

Ten years later, having changed his name to Dawoud Bey and studied photography at the School of Visual Arts, he made his debut with a solo show at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Called “Harlem USA,” it consisted of 25 black-and-white photographs of neighborhood residents, like military veterans in a marching band and older women on their way to church.

Mr. Bey, who now lives in Chicago and teaches photography at Columbia College there, became a widely acclaimed portrait photographer, known for conveying a self-awareness and introspection in his subjects. His work has been shown across the United States and Europe and is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

This summer at the Art Institute of Chicago, for the first time since the 1979 Studio Museum show, his Harlem series is being exhibited in its entirety. The Art Institute set up a special fund-raising drive to purchase prints, mostly vintage, of the original series (for a price Mr. Bey described as in “the low six figures”) and is also presenting other works in its collection by photography pioneers, including James Van Der Zee, Irving Penn and Roy DeCarava, all of whom influenced Mr. Bey. Read More.

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