Dawoud Bey, Mary Parker and Caela Cowan, 2012. Archival pigment prints mounted on dibond. 40 x 64 inches (two separate 40 x 32 inch photographs).
There is an excellent New York Times Lens Blog post by Maurice Berger, “Reimagining a Tragedy, 50 Years Later,” discussing Dawoud Bey’s series The Birmingham Project.
Bey’s portraits are stunning, masterful examples of contemporary documentary photography that reflects upon and reframes history. In this case, Bey invites us to consider the tragedy of the16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama (the 50th anniversary is this Sunday, September 15th).
As Bey explains of his work, “I wanted to give tangible and palpable physical presence to the young people martyred that day…While the horror of the day is clear, the actual identities of the young people have become abstracted in a fuzzy and mythic kind of way.”
As a boy, Bey had encountered a photo originally published in Life Magazine, which depicted Sarah Jean Collins, one of the survivors of the Baptist Church bombing. (Her sister, Addie Mae Collins, was killed that day, as were five other children.)
This image is unapologetically graphic and terrifying to contemplate. Bey’s portraits offer a powerful counterpoint to the photograph and to those horrific events.
His subjects are neither helpless victims nor objects of pity. They are individuals, who, as Berger recounts, were active participants in the photo shoot. Each looks out to the camera, to the photographer, and to us with an unflinching, direct gaze. They look out, and we see them; through this exchange, we connect an abstract, “historical” past with the present.
Read about the The Birmingham Project series on the Lens blog, and see Bey’s photographs here.