One of K-State’s treasures is the Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art. Through generous support from various foundations, the museum is able to bring well-known and contemporary works of art right to campus.
One of the current exhibitions is “Picturing People,” and it runs until Oct. 5. This exhibition displays the photography of Dawoud Bey, an American photographer who’s been active since the ’70s. This might partially explain Bey’s artistic roots in capturing individuals in their local urban settings. Street photography has been popular in the U.S. since its introduction, but it is usually more intent on capturing scenes rather than individuals. Bey’s photographs are portraits that vary from black and white photography taken by a small camera, to vivid color portraits. The display also contains reflective quotes from the artist about his photography and his process, as quoted from his book “Class Pictures.”
Usually, exhibits feature only an artist’s most recent work. “Picturing People,” however, has selections of Bey’s work from 1982 up to the present. This span of artistic work gives the viewer a rare opportunity to see an artist’s development as their art matures and adapts to both the cultural climate and the artist’s interests. Throughout Bey’s development as an artist, one element has remained the same: his tendency to shoot human subjects in ways that reveal what is most sensitive about each subject.
“It was just as much about my engagement with people — listening to their stories and talking to them — as it was about making pictures,” Bey wrote of his work.
In short, his portraits reflect this sensitivity.
His early photographs of Harlem are in black and white, taken from a small camera as Bey was beginning to flesh out his work. These portraits are entirely about the individual in the present moment. The shots are taken at average height, making it feel as if the portraits are individuals looking straight at you vis-à-vis the camera. You could easily have stopped to say “hello” to these individuals. You want to talk to these photographs.
Bey’s later work of the ’80s began to capture these individuals in social settings as they were on their way to work or fulfilling daily obligations like baby showers or trips to the post office. These photographs speak to art’s ability, whether through photography or another medium, to capture what is plain, local, and make it beautiful and cathartic.
As Bey moved into the ’90s, his portraits became cinematic.
About this era, he wrote that he was going for, “the way we move through the world via a series of glances that we quickly put together.”
These portraits are usually multiple photographs of a single subject, taken from various — in Bey’s language — glances. This is my favorite section of the exhibit. One of the subjects, a photograph of three young men, is broken up into eight different pictures, each in an individual frame. It has an isolating effect and every part of my being wants to put the photograph back together again; to unite the subjects.
“Strangers/Community” is Bey’s latest project. Since 2010, Bey has been photographing total strangers together. He takes two individuals, complete strangers apart from their participation, and sets them side by side. It’s amazing how communal two strangers can feel. No matter their race or background, it seems as if the strangers have the potential, the possibility, to be together. In his artificial community, Bey tugs at the viewer’s heartstrings concerning what a community can be. That he is able to accomplish this either suggests a knack for arranging his shots or that he is revealing a human truth. Don’t both possibilities speak to his skill as an artist?
There’s plenty of time left to see the exhibit. Since it’s free, you have no excuse to not see Bey’s work. Every student and townie can take advantage of the Beach Museum. For more information on the Dawoud Bey exhibition and upcoming programs related to it, please visit beach.k-state.edu/explore/exhibitions/bey.html.
Jesse Lobbs is a graduate student in English. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.