Your NPR news source
At 70, celebrated Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey has a new book and art exhibition.

At 70, celebrated Chicago photographer Dawoud Bey has a new book and art exhibition.

Photo (book) courtesy of Aperture, (Bey) courtesy of Frank Ishman

In a new book, Chicago’s Dawoud Bey reckons with the ghosts of America’s past

For Dawoud Bey, history is anything but dead. Through the Hyde Park photographer’s eyes, and more specifically his lens, the events of the past are very much alive and tangled amid contemporary life.

A MacArthur Fellow whose intimate, evocative portraits have been the subject of major exhibitions across the country, Bey has shifted his focus in the past few years to the indelible mark people have had on place and space. And in particular, how the legacy of slavery still lives in the land.

Bey, 70, began this exploration in 2017 with his series Night Coming Tenderly Black, a set of large-scale black and white images that feature purported stops on the underground railroad in Ohio. “That work was about trying to visualize and imagine the landscape of fugitive activity,” Bey said. “How Black bodies moved across Northeastern Ohio in an act of self-liberation to get themselves to the other side of Lake Erie and Canada.”

From there, the Columbia College professor stepped further back in time and turned his camera to the places from which Black slaves escaped. In this case, the west banks of the Mississippi River in Louisiana where more than 350 plantations once stood. This set of images, which Bey titled In This Here Place, focus on Evergreen plantation, a well-preserved sugarcane plantation and historic landmark about 45 miles upriver from New Orleans.

And now, for his new photo series, Stony the Road, Bey has completed the triptych in Richmond, Virginia, where African men and women were sold into slavery. The series is part of an exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts titled Dawoud Bey: Elegy, which brings together the three projects for the first time. “Virginia was an epicenter for the import and export of Black bodies,” Bey said. “This is where this whole narrative basically begins, where 350,000 enslaved Africans walked into slavery.”

Along with the exhibit, which runs through February, Bey has published a book with Aperture. On the pages of Elegy, the 42 images create a haunting catalog of the American landscape. They illustrate, says Bey, how history reverberates in the present, how it doesn’t simply disappear. Bey shared with WBEZ contributor Elly Fishman, in his own words, the stories behind five Elegy photographs suspended somewhere between the past and present.



'Irrigation Ditch' from the series 'In This Here Place,' 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

‘Irrigation Ditch’ from the series ‘In This Here Place,’ 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

Irrigation Ditch

Bey: “This is Evergreen, which still has an active sugarcane business on that landscape. This is a view of that, but the picture itself is meant to pull you in and suggest the vastness of this landscape. That it goes on for as far as the eye can see. I’d never been on a plantation landscape before. I still haven’t seen a cotton field. Being in those sugarcane fields, and seeing the absolute enormity even of a reduced sugarcane operation, it really gives you a sense of the intensely grueling labor needed to harvest sugarcane.”

* * *



Irrigation Ditch from the series In This Here Place, 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

‘Cabin and Benches,’ from the series ‘In This Here Place,’ 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

Cabin and Benches

“This slave cabin is from Evergreen plantation and is one of the 22 intact cabins that remain on the site. One of the reasons they’re so well-preserved is that they were occupied until as recently as 1947 by people who were the descendants of the enslaved. People who lived here as sharecroppers on the same land where their family had once been slaves. They lived here with no running water. No bathroom facilities. This cabin looks like someone just got up and walked away from the scene. There are benches still there. Even the parted curtain, it has a very haunted and haunting feeling to it.”

* * *



Conjoined Trees and Field from the series In This Here Place, 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

Conjoined Trees and Field from the series In This Here Place, 2019, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

Conjoined Trees and Field

“There is something deeply human about these touching trees on this plantation landscape. It’s one of the few pictures that eems deeply allegorical in some way. These two touching trees and this once horrific landscape. It’s the persistence touch, and the persistence of connection, as suggested by trees, which are very much a living thing, too.”

* * *



Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953), gelatin silver print. Rennie Collection, Vancouver. Image © Dawoud Bey

Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse)

“I found this house from doing research on underground railroad safe houses in Cleveland. The site was not overly modernized and there’s the white picket fence, which is significant within the sociocultural sensibility of this country. The white picket fence signifies a kind of property demarcation. The very real aspiration to get your own house around which you can put a white picket fence to mark your space.”

* * *



At Work in Cleveland at Lake Erie, 2017, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953). Dawoud Bey Studio

At Work in Cleveland at Lake Erie, 2017, Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953). Dawoud Bey Studio

Dawoud Bey at work in Cleveland at Lake Erie

I very much want to keep working in the landscape tradition. For me, the human presence in these photographs hasn’t completely disappeared because it shapes how I make the photograph. They’re always eye level. I’m not doing interesting and unusual things with the camera to make interesting pictures. Even if the photographs look down, they’re looking down from a human vantage point. They are meant to suggest the human presence in that place. I actually see it as people, those Black presences, moving from in front of the camera to behind it.”

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.”

The Latest
The sweeping musical at Chicago Shakespeare Theater strives to be both epic and intimate in its staging of the classic J.R.R. Tolkien novels.
Starting this weekend, the elaborate speaker trellis at the Pritzker Pavilion will pipe an inventive sound installation created by artists from around the world.
With summer in Chicago comes a slew of free events that highlight some of the brightest stars on the city’s cultural scene.

This summer, ditch the urban routines of Chicago for a slow-paced day trip or culture-rich overnight stay in the Midwest.
The Chicago author’s new graphic novel brings her brilliant ballpoint pen crosshatches back to the seedy underbelly of Chicago’s North Side, following the saga of werewolf and preteen detective Karen Reyes.