Dawoud Bey's Portraits of Ordinary Americans Shine at MOCA

It's not often that a craving for dim sum ends up landing your portrait in a major museum exhibit. But for Kali-Ahset Amen, that's exactly what happened three years ago after she took her two children to their favorite Chinese restaurant in Atlanta.

"I was treating Xiomara, who is 7, and Joshua, my 2-year-old, to a little Asian-fusion place near the university," says the 37-year-old mom, who is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Emory University. "As we were walking to our table, a woman approached me and asked me if I would be interested in sitting for photographer Dawoud Bey, who was also dining at the restaurant. She led me to his table, and an assistant snapped a cell-phone picture of me and said they would be in touch later."

That initial contact resulted in the unusual double portrait of Amen sitting next to a Buddhist monk, a striking photo that's part of "Dawoud Bey: Picturing People," a major career survey of the Chicago-based photographer's work spanning more than three decades, on view now at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami.

Kali-Ahset Amen and Geshe Ngawang Phende
Dawoud Bey
Kali-Ahset Amen and Geshe Ngawang Phende

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"Dawoud Bey: Picturing People": Through September 8 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 770 NE 125th St., North Miami; 305-893-6211; mocanomi.org. Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday 1 to 9 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission costs $5.

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Amen's photo, taken alongside Geshe Ngawang Phende, a visiting Buddhist monk at Atlanta's Drepung Loseling Monastery, comes from Bey's most recent series, Strangers/Community (2010-present). In eight large-format color portraits snapped in Chicago and Atlanta, the artist casts two individuals unknown to each other from the same sociogeographic community to highlight their differences and question notions of community.

That series is one of six at MOCA, ranging from street photographs taken in Harlem during the '80s to Bey's Polaroid 20-by-24-inch multipanel group portraits shot during the '90s. Also on view are several works from Bey's Class Pictures (2002-2006), for which the artist traveled across the country to photograph high-school students in Chicago, Detroit, New York, Orlando, and San Francisco. The images are accompanied by biographical text written by his subjects.

Together, the 51 works — focused mostly on African-Americans and youngsters — present a soulful look at ordinary folks from all walks of life in contemporary society and the remarkable humanism with which Bey captures his subjects.

Bey first drew the art world's attention as a budding young photographer in his early 20s with the acclaimed series Harlem U.S.A., exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. Today, the 59-year-old says his journey to become one of the contemporary art world's most celebrated lensmen was totally unexpected.

"I was born and raised in New York — in Jamaica, Queens. I became interested in photography entirely by chance when my godmother gave me my first camera," Bey says. "I was 15 years old at the time. It was an Argus C3 rangefinder camera that had belonged to my godfather, who had recently passed away."

Though he had no training, Bey was immediately drawn to the device. "Getting that camera was the beginning. It made me want to figure out how to use it and then what I might do with it," he says.

His father, Kenneth, was an electrical engineer, and his mother, Mary, was a homemaker. At first, both parents were concerned how Bey would make a living with a camera. But when they saw he was serious about his craft, they supported his ambitions.

"My mother allowed me to set up my first darkroom in her kitchen after everyone went to bed," he says. "When I started to realize there were such things as exhibitions of photography, my dad and I would pile into the car, and he would take me to see them."

The year after he got his first camera, the 16-year-old — then known by his birth name, David Smikle — went to see the controversial exhibit "Harlem on My Mind" at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

"It was the first time I had ever gone to a museum on my own," Bey says. "Seeing photographs of everyday African-Americans on the wall of that museum... began to give me a sense of what I might do with the camera."

Bey's parents had met in Harlem and lived there for years, so the show made him want to "reconnect to that community through making photographs there," he says.

"I also wanted to contribute something to the long cultural history of Harlem and the way in which black people had been represented photographically and visually."

Bey changed his name while studying photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. He later received an MFA in photography from Yale University. By that time, he began using a 4-by-5 camera on a tripod, which he still favors today, and developing his style.

"I began to actually direct the person in front of the camera, since it was a very deliberate way of working," Bey says. "I took my cues from their individual gestures and then subtly directed that to something even more expressive... I guess you could say I am directing them toward a more heightened performance of themselves."

That's the idea he brought into his most recent series, Strangers/Community. Amen says that posing for Bey opened her eyes to portraiture.

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