His Photos Are Only Part of the Picture
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Dec. 26, 2008
How much can a portrait reveal -- or conceal -- of what photographer Dawoud Bey calls the subject's "interior self"? That question is at the heart of two related shows at Baltimore's Walters Art Museum and Contemporary Museum.
The main event is the Contemporary's "Class Pictures." Thirty-four large-format images, culled from Bey's series of color portraits of American high school students made in the past 10 years, are accompanied by short written statements by each subject.
At the Walters, things get a bit more conceptual. Over the course of a three-week residency this summer, 12 students from public and private high schools in the Baltimore area came together with Bey to match old portraits from the museum's collection with examples of the contemporary artist's work. By pairing, say, Bey's 2001 photograph of a teenage girl in Chicago with a painting of an aristocratic woman from 18th-century England, "Portraits Re/Examined" invites us to think about ways in which today's impulse to represent the self is similar to (or different from) that of the distant past.
As with a yearbook, in most cases a superficial glance at the shots in "Class Pictures" suggests whom you might be looking at: the jock, the goth, the nerd, etc. And, judging from the student bios, you wouldn't be far from wrong.
But what the pictures don't tell you is who is a cancer survivor and who has two moms (or who is a teenage mother). Who wants to grow up to be a doctor, an actor or a professional soccer player. And who dreams of meeting the Dalai Lama.
Economic and social distinctions are blurred as well, though not obliterated.
See, the word "class" in the title of the Contemporary Museum's show has a double meaning. Some kids in the portraits are evidently the children of privilege; others not so much. But it isn't always easy to tell the haves from the have-nots. And even when we can, Bey reminds us, that information tells us nothing about who the person really is, or what his or her aspirations are.
Now it may seem strange at first for a visual artist known for his directness to rely on what appears to be a crutch (written statements) to supplement his pictures. If he really believes in his work's ability to lay bare the inner person, why do why need a cheat sheet?
I think the answer is in the back room. Tucked away behind the main gallery is a screening room featuring four short video portraits made early during Bey's "Class Pictures" project. Together, the program runs less than 16 minutes. Instead of writing about themselves, however, the adolescent subjects speak at length about their lives.
But here the camera never pulls back far enough to reveal the subject's whole face. We never see more than a blinking eye, a nostril, the corner of a moving mouth. It's frustrating, especially after looking at the photographs, which lay out his young subjects' faces like a map.
It's no accident either.
Despite being known for photographs that illuminate the soul, Bey has chosen to focus so tightly on one feature at a time that we can't tell a thing about the face. Which is, when it comes down to it, his point.
No portrait ever tells the whole story, even when accompanied by footnotes. Or, as photographer Richard Avedon said, as quoted in the Walters exhibition, "All photographs are accurate. None of them are truth."