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Looking At High School Students Looking At Themselves

Dawoud Bey's "Kevin," "Lauren," and "Sahendy" (from top)

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 1/28/2009

Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey; Portraits Re/Examined: A Dawoud Bey Project

Through Feb. 21 at the Contemporary Museum; Through Feb. 16 at the Walters Museum of Art

Dawoud Bey started his career in the late 1970s by taking candid shots of ordinary people in Harlem. Starting in the '80s, he expanded his work geographically by visiting African-American neighborhoods in other cities and conceptually by using positive-negative Polaroid film so he could give his subjects their picture immediately after it was taken. As a result, these early images are intimate without being exploitative, saying more about the photographed than the photographer.

In the traveling show Class Pictures, now at the Contemporary Museum, Bey continues this political and personal work with photographs of high school students. Unlike the high school students of television shows or movies, Bey's students are self-consciously diverse, representing private and public high schools across the country. In contrast to Bey's black-and-white, often somber, documentary work, these portraits are awash in saturated, lively colors that stand out from the lifeless school spaces the students inhabit.

Each photograph is accompanied by a student statement, collected at the time the picture was taken, that shapes or refutes the accompanying image. In "Amy," an Asian girl with dyed pink strands of hair and a studded belt looks at the camera with indifference, yet her statement offers a vigorous, if vulnerable, defense of her appearance, asking "Why should my having pink hair bother people?" Again and again, the students interrogate their own image even before they have time to contemplate how they will appear to unknown viewers.

In Detroit, Bey finds a student who is one of the few whites at a predominantly African-American school and gets her to talk about what it's like to stand out from the others. Immigrants, pregnant teens, football players, as well as students from the elite prep school Philips Academy, Andover, make appearances in the collection of several dozen photographs, placing the exhibit in conversation with other projects that attempt to capture the diversity of American life by cataloguing it.

But Bey is more of a humanist than a realist. His photos retain sympathy for his subjects even if they reveal the oily skin and bad hair that are part of the adolescent experience. By giving the teenagers a chance to respond to their images, Bey restricts our interpretation of them, but this is offset by the fact that much of what seems obvious from the photographs is invisible to those photographed. The poses of his subjects are often very aggressive, capturing them at moments of great intensity, a quality often echoed in their statements. But their wide-open eyes and enlarged pupils make them look vulnerable even when they appear to be staring us down.

In part, this comes out of Bey's interest in portraiture as an aesthetic form, here shown by the inclusion of a video made as part of his Detroit visit. Outside the room, it is possible to hear teenagers talk about their own lives, in halting, often revealing phrases that let us imagine what the stories may have been like from Bey's hundreds of interviews. But for this video, Bey doesn't shoot head or full-body shots of his subjects. Instead, the camera scans the eyes, nose, and lips of each of the four faces, looking for signs of similarity, or weakness, erasing the importance of the words.

In many projects that match social work with artistic practice, both lose out, but Bey is particularly good at getting the results he wants without losing his pedagogical intent. That is demonstrated by Portraits Re/Examined: A Dawoud Bey Project, housed in the fourth-floor contemporary art space at the Walters Art Museum. Taking advantage of the Walters large and eclectic collection, the exhibit is the result of a three-week summer residency where Bey worked with city high school students to match the faces in his own work with images from the past from the Walter's permanent collection. The exhibit doubles as an introduction to Bey's work, with the images from the past serving to again accent the transhistorical similarities of teenagers, whether they're future princes or the children of slaves. The most captivating diptych in the show is one that places "Buck," a 1989 image of what appears to be an albino African-American boy, alongside a 19th-century drawing of a stereotypical "Pickanniny," which draws the viewer's attention to the rascally nature of the images as well as the two children's light skin color.

There are many questions one could ask of adolescents, and the people Bey selected to include in Class Pictures are perhaps more compelling than the average teenager, but what's most striking about these images is the distance between what we see and what the students say they are. While Bey's early portraits are at times overcome by the despair of its surroundings, the sparseness of the backgrounds and the confidence of his subjects sets an optimistic tone to the piece. For all the uncertain and misery of high school, it's hard to not think about the future, and Bey encourages his subjects to embrace it.

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