malick sidibé, teenie harris & dawoud bey look at people through three different lenses; they look back in three different ways.
Malick Sidibé, Teenie “One Shot” Harris, and Dawoud Bey: three remarkable photographers, the first Malian, the latter two American (Harris from Pittsburgh and Bey primarily, but not exclusively, shooting in New York). They have each gained attention from the art world in recent decades. Sidibé was a portraitist based in Bamako who captured a bustling youth culture in the 1970s and 80s. Harris chronicled life in Pittsburgh’s flourishing African-American community. Bey continues to explore African American life, and larger questions of community and place, in Harlem, Chicago, and elsewhere. Big questions about race relations, colonialism, and larger structures of power and inequality surface in their photographs, but what is most striking about looking at them together is how each photographer pictures people looking back at the camera differently.
In Sidibé’s photos, people pose. “When I bought my first camera,” he explained to Brigitte Ollier for the exhibit and catalog Mali Twist, “there was a mirror attached to it.” This was because, Sidibé explained, “It was said that someone who looked at himself in the mirror became a genie. So that supernatural being, in order to demonstrate his stature, looked himself over in front of the others. He made the best of himself. Spruced himself up….” In Sidibé’s small studio and sometimes in the youth clubs, dancehalls, and outdoor settings of postcolonial Bamako, they often proudly display objects: a motorcycle, a soul or rock recording from the West, a turntable, boxing gloves, a guitar, a purse. Even when dancing they seem aware of the camera’s presence, that someone is looking at them, checking them out. They pose dressed to the nines: in the most amazing pair of flares you’ve ever seen, peering over a cool sunglasses, hats tilted just right, wearing a shirt, or not wearing one at all. They pose themselves for the camera, but they also pose the idea, often with their eyes, that they are not just there to be seen for the camera, but also beyond the camera, through the camera. They look out at the world through the lens. They look out at the future in the lens.
By contrast, Teenie Harris’s photos bring us back to the past. He documents African American Pittsburgh in the 1940s and 50s, with images of nightclub owners and baseball stars, politicians and bigwigs, but also everyday folks, kids, and even, like the infamous Weegee in New York City, gruesome murders. To gaze at Harris’s photos is to notice people not looking back at you. They don’t seem to care for the future, but rather for the robust, fascinating world in which they are enmeshed. They are looking at each other and for each other. They look off at something or someone else in the room, down the street, in the moment. In one photo, a woman gazes adoringly at Duke Ellington, who looks down, a bit sheepishly, signing an autograph. In another, young women eat candied apples, joyously enjoying each other’s company. They know Harris is there taking the photo but their eyes smile with camaraderie. They are together. Harris is just there to document the fun.
Sometimes one person’s eyes in the photo give us a clue of its larger historical stakes, as if they were the tell in a poker match, particularly one about the unfinished project of racial justice in America. A striking images captures a white police officer scowling at First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as she towers, like a gazelle, over black and white children gathered around a stone memorial for her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In another image, from 1951, a muscular African American teenage boy holds a younger white child aloft in a pool during a swimming lesson. The young white boy looks like he might be about to fly, supported by the older black teenager, who looks down in concentration. Others children, black and white, seem to be posing for Harris. It is a scene of racial integration, with a sense of possibility to it, but Harris has caught a moment when one younger African American boy in the foreground of the photo looks on at the scene sourly, skeptically, registering suspicion with an out of sync side eye.
In other images by Harris, one person might eye him back as he gets his shot, but everyone else seems unaware. Billy Eckstine, the jazz bandleader, looks up skeptically at Harris, but next to him Lucky Thompson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker are lost in performance, on the cusp of inventing bebop. In another photo, Joe Lewis looks the camera squarely in the eye, but Cab Calloway gazes at Lewis slyly, Woogie Harris looks off in the distance, past the camera, and so does John Henry Lewis. In a photo of boy scouts on a street corner, everyone looks intently down at their sketchpads while they draw, but one boy looks up askance, dubiously, at his instructor. While there are certainly a number of portraits in which subjects look right back at Harris, he most of all specialized in being on the scene without being at the center of it (hence his nickname, “One Shot”). The way people are looking in the moment he snaps his photos is as important as the way they look. He captured Pittsburgh citizens in action. They don’t gaze at the camera with self-aware intensity most of the time. Rather they look at each other or are just caught up in the history Harris captured, at the scene of which they were all playing a part.
Dawoud Bey’s photography, in contrast to Sidibé’s intense portraits and Harris’s embedded action shots, has a kind of gentle softness to it. In the 2016 survey of his career, Seeing Deeply, his subjects seem happy to see him seeing them deeply. A trust has developed, a kind of solidarity even between image giver and taker. Some look at him, some look away, some smile, others are lost in contemplation, some are in shadow, some step into the light, but all seem pleased to be with Bey.
The only edge comes in his Harlem Redux photos, a sequel to Bey’s 1970s series Harlem, USA. In these photos, taken in 2016, we see the gentrification of Harlem. White business men marching ominously by the shuttered Lenox Lounge, its letters fading to black. One year later, the building would be demolished. A set of ghostly trench coats and jackets hang from a fence, hats with no heads lining its top, set against blue tarp hiding the pit of new construction behind it. You start to worry that the world has possibly overrun Bey’s sensitivity.
But then, on the next page of the catalog, we see some of Bey’s very first photos. They are from 1964 and feature portraits of black and white classmates together on the playground of Public School 131 in Jamaica, Queens. The boys stand proudly, awkwardly, beautifully. They sit, thumbing through books (I want them to be comic books but they might not be). They are friends. They seem glad Bey is taking their photos. For he isn’t taking anything from them, he’s giving them something, a gift of seeing we get to see too.