In 2017, renowned portraitist Dawoud Bey (American, b. 1953) reflected on his four-decade career by stating simply, “my work has largely been based on representation of the human subject.” He explained that he has used photography to depict “subjects such as the black subject, or young people, who are not always—within the larger social conversation—thought of as having a rich interior life.” In addition to these poetic portraits of ordinary people, Bey has recently begun confronting central events in African American history, asking, “what kind of work can one make about something that happened decades ago?”
This question is vital to Bey’s newest project, Night Coming Tenderly, Black, completed in 2017. Bey has written, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black is a visual reimagining of the movement of fugitive slaves through the Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio landscapes as they approached Lake Erie and the final passage to freedom in Canada. Using both real and imagined sites, these landscape photographs seek to recreate the spatial and sensory experiences of those moving furtively through the darkness.”
Bey’s masterful printing methods work to convey the sensory experience he seeks to recreate. Initially photographing these landscapes by day, Bey printed them in the deep blacks and rich grays of night. The results allow the delicate tonal gradations and fine details to slowly emerge. Bey has described the darkness in these prints as “a metaphor for an enveloping physical darkness, a passage to liberation that was a protective cover for the escaping African American slaves.”
Using both real and imagined sites, these landscape photographs seek to recreate the spatial and sensory experiences of those moving furtively through the darkness.
A portfolio of ten photographs from Night Coming Tenderly, Black, published in 2018, has been acquired by the Harry Ransom Center in partnership with Black Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. This acquisition supports Black Studies’ goal of increasing the University’s collection of primary documents relating to cultures of the African Diaspora, and the Ransom Center’s aims of enriching its photography holdings by acquiring works by historically underrepresented artists.
This article appeared in the print edition of the Ransom Center Magazine (Spring 2020).