Photo by Dawoud Bey

A four-decade retrospective at SFMOMA called Dawoud Bey: An American Project, presents the works of the photographer from his self-taught beginnings, making street portraits in Harlem, through more recent works which explore history. He says, especially in portraiture, he tries “to make the work in such a way that the camera disappears.”

There’s more information about the exhibition, which runs through May 25th, at the SFMOMA website.

He got his start taking pictures on the streets of Harlem, and jokes, “In an exhibition context, what you’re seeing are the ones that work… but generally, when I approached someone in the earlier portrait work that I made, it’s just an intuitive sense that I can make something with this person… What I hope to do is to momentarily step into their lives, and amplify that thing that I see in them, without the camera disrupting that.” The earliest works were small and black and white; as styles and photographic trends evolved, the images grew larger, with many in color. He’s kept the bigger size, but returned to black and white for several historical projects. “I didn’t want them to be too conspicuously contemporary as objects, because I’m talking about history in that work. And the way photographs look in history is not large scale color, but black and white.” For The Birmingham Project, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, he photographed residents of the city who matched the ages of the victims, as well as people 50 years older, showing the two side by side as a diptych. In Night Coming Tenderly, Black he imagines and tries to depict what slaves following the Underground Railroad might have seen as they made their way to Lake Erie, en route to Canada. The images are large and eerily dark, putting the viewer into the point of view of the slaves. “It’s not about the literal presence of the black body, but how to make work that is about the black body moving through the space of the Underground Railroad. ”