This exhibition is a selection of photographs from Bey’s critically acclaimed series from 2017. Regarded as one of the most important photographers working today, Dawoud Bey (b. 1953) is recognized for his compelling, large-scale portraits and street photographs of marginalized people and communities that he began in the 1970s. Inspired by artist Roy DeCarava (1919—2009), Bey has been photographing the Black community in Harlem where he was born, and Queens where he grew up, for over four decades.
In Night Coming Tenderly, Black Bey imagines the flight of enslaved African American fugitives in the mid-nineteenth century traveling along the last part of an Underground Railroad network. He shot these landscapes (the artist’s first) in Ohio moving northward towards Lake Erie, on the other side of which lay Canada and freedom. The artist presents a narrative that instills in the viewer a visceral sensation of moving surreptitiously through an unknown nocturnal landscape—what it would feel like to encounter thick forests, open creeks and marshes, and to come upon fenced property and houses—the only signifiers of human presence in these photographs. He imagines too the overwhelming sense of vulnerability.
As Bey said about the series, “…the challenge of making history visible was different, because the exact movement of fugitive slaves across the American landscape had—for reasons of their very survival—to remain secret. This mystery allowed me the conceptual space to reimagine what that movement might have been, how it might have looked and felt.” To convey nighttime, Bey created silver gelatin photographs printed in luscious black and gray tones and adopted a large-scale format to immerse the viewer in the landscape. The title of the series was inspired by Dream Variations (published 1926), a poem by Langston Hughes.
In Untitled #24 (At Lake Erie), recently acquired by the Brandywine, the artist offers a distant glimpse of this enormous body of water. Shrouded by thick foliage, the Lake—the final obstacle on the route to freedom—is revealed. Bey described the location as one where he felt a visceral and spiritual connection to the past.
Dawoud Bey: Night Coming Tenderly, Black will have particular resonance for the Brandywine region, given the many local sites that were active stations of the Underground Railroad network.