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Image of Alva

Dawoud Bey , b. Nov 25, 1953

Alva

1992
30 1/4 in. x 44 in. (76.84 cm x 111.76 cm)

Medium and Support: Polacolor ER photographs (diptych)
Credit Line: Museum purchase
Accession Number: 1993.17a,b

Commentary

Dawoud Bey inherited his first camera from his godfather at the age of fourteen. However, it was not until two years later, when he visited the controversial "Harlem on My Mind" exhibition at
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, that he truly grasped the medium's historical and documentary power, particularly for African Americans.

Though he attended New York's School of Visual Arts early on for a time (and later received an M.F.A. from Yale University), Bey largely taught himself the intricacies of his craft. New York and other northeastern cities, and later Mexico and Puerto Rico, were places where he immersed himself in the daily flow of the street, carefully selecting the slice of life that would define the whole of experience. Man Looking at Pants on Fulton Street (Brooklyn, New York; 1985), also in the Addison’s collection, is exemplary of his command of this genre of street photography. As Jock Reynolds remarked, "You show us a young man whose gaze and posture place him at ease within his urban environment. He's taking pleasure in the resources his city offers him."1

In the late eighties, becoming more self-conscious about his position as a photographer in often depressed communities, Bey put his 35mm equipment aside, and looked for a way to give something back to those who had so generously given their likenesses to his art. He began working with a 4-by-5-inch view camera, and setting it up on a tripod—hood and all—in the street. Using Polaroid Type 55 Positive/Negative film he was able to give a photograph to his models instantly and still have a usable negative to print from. Three works in the Addison collection—A Couple in Prospect Park (Brooklyn, New York; 1990), A Boy After a Tent Revival Meeting (New York City; 1989), and Young Woman Between Carrolburg Place and Half Street (Washington, D.C.; 1989)—all use this format.

The last named piece perhaps best epitomizes this development in Bey's style, what Max Kozloff has termed "formal outdoor portraits.”2 There is direct eye contact with the camera (and ultimately the viewer) that is found in many daguerreotypes. The woman has a carriage that is self-assured and clearly reserved for the outside world. It is this celebration and command of self that are so fully expressed in Bey's recent body of work (of which Alva is an early example) using Polaroid's 20-by-24-inch camera. Bey first had the opportunity to work with this impressive piece of technology in 1991. Measuring 5 feet high by 3 1/2 feet wide, the camera produces 20-by-24-inch images on Polaroid film in a little over a minute (like the more familiar smaller versions). Because there is no negative involved, resulting photographs are highly detailed and descriptive. Since Bey had already been using a view camera and tripod—creating a static situation in the course of urban life—the jump from street to studio was not a large one.

After working with single-subject studies, Bey moved to complicate the figure even more. In Alva, he combines two views of his model to create a third construct that more fully describes this woman than either panel would separately. In the photograph on the left the mood is contemplative: she looks away from the lens, not so much toward something outside of the frame as inward; there is a sense that she is listening to her own inner music. On the right the woman's gaze is direct, though not necessarily confrontational; there is softness but also a sense of morality and strength. In both images we are drawn to Alva's magnificent black hair, a billowing cloud that tenderly caresses her head and neck. Her dark blouse and the movement of shadows further define and accentuate her powerful features. The green background adds to the photograph's overall feeling of serenity. The slight shifts in the model's torso and the tilt of her head are delicate but explicit. In this exquisite double portrait Bey achieves a balance between internal and external aspects of self. It alludes to the fragile equilibrium that we all strive to preserve between the nurturance of the soul and the maintenance of the public body. Bey's subject, Alva Rogers, a well-known performer and composer in her own right, is a particularly appropriate one to illustrate this concept. Her striking image has also become associated with the early work of painter Whitfield Lovell, with conceptual photographer Lorna Simpson, and with varied series by her husband, photographer Accra Shepp. Her stunning presence on film is linked with Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Spike Lee (School Daze). The question remains, where do the talents of one artist begin and another end?

Bey eventually moved on from the diptych format that Alva represents. In later pieces that also utilize the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, such as the triptychs in the Addison collection—Erica, Tiffany, and Tricia (1992) and Sara, Martin David, and Tolani (1992) —portraits are not contained within a single image but migrate across the photographic borders.

Kellie Jones, Addison Gallery of American Art: 65 Years, A Selective Catalogue (Andover, Massachusetts: Addison Gallery of American Art, 1996), pp. 327-28


1. Jock Reynolds, "An Interview with Dawoud Bey," in Kellie Jones et al., Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995 (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995), p. 104.

2. Max Kozloff, "To Reveal Without Judgement." in Dawoud Bey: Recent Photographs (New York: Ledel Gallery, 1990), unpaginated.

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