left: photo of two men wearing sunglasses and hats; right: photo of woman wearing denim
Dawoud Bey

‘Very American Photographs’

Street photography as collaboration

Photographs by Dawoud Bey

Image above left: Two Men at Cambridge Place and Fulton Street, Brooklyn, 1988; Above right: Woman Wearing Denim, Rochester, 1989

This article was published online on April 9, 2021.

“Can I make a picture with you?”

The photographer Dawoud Bey posed this question to passersby in Black communities across America countless times from 1988 to 1991. His simple inquiry yielded beautiful portraits of everyday Americans that relayed intense interiority and intimacy. The monograph Street Portraits, published in April by Mack, marks the first time the 73 pictures in the series can be seen together.

Left to right: A Girl Coming From the Store, Rochester, 1989; A Young Man With His Hotdog Cart, Rochester, 1989; Two Girls on Willoughby Street, Brooklyn, 1989
Left to right: Kofi and Ebony, Brooklyn, 1990; A Boy Wearing a Star Wars Shirt, Rochester, 1989; A Man Carrying His Bible, Brooklyn, 1988

Street portraiture by nature is a kind of surreptitious craft, not always reliant on the consent of the photographed and occasionally even voyeuristic or invasive. Bey subverted convention by lugging a tripod and a large camera around New York City, Rochester, and Amityville in New York, as well as Washington, D.C. Inside the camera was Polaroid positive/negative film. The medium allowed Bey to give his subjects a keepsake from these momentary exchanges, a Polaroid print of themselves (the positive); Bey kept the negative for his own prints. In this way, the photographer and his subjects became collaborators. Bey, who was awarded a MacArthur genius grant in 2017, told me that he cultivated an ethos of reciprocity while working on this series. It has remained a constant in his portraits ever since.

“They’re very American photographs,” Bey said. “It’s about placing Black people within that larger American landscape, within the physical landscape, within the geographical landscape.”

“The whole point,” Bey told me, “is to amplify their presence in the world.”

This article appears in the May 2021 print edition with the headline “Polaroid Portraits.”