Dawoud Bey

African-American photographer Dawoud Bey, who first garnered widespread recognition in the early ’90s for black-and-white portraits taken on the streets of Harlem, has spent the past fifteen years focusing on diverse populations of teenagers. “Class Pictures,” Bey’s recent exhibition at the Addison Gallery of American Art, was centered on his depictions of contemporary American adolescence. The work on display—a video titled Four Stories, 2003, and forty large color shots taken between 2003 and 2006—was the result of visits to more than a dozen high schools around the country and was made in close collaboration with students from Andover; Lawrence, MA; Chicago; Detroit; New York; Orlando; and San Francisco.

Bey’s methodology remained consistent throughout his three to four-week visits to each institution: Portrait subjects were asked to write a personal statement to accompany their picture before it was taken. The artist did not read these statements until after the shoot, concentrating instead on capturing the essence of the youngsters’ posture, dress, and expression, his intention being “that the students in the project represent as broadly as practically possible the increasingly diverse population of this country as a way of visualizing and reinscribing the notion of just who America is at this moment in history.” The teenagers, who represent a variety of racial origins and physical types, are sharply etched against backgrounds distinguished by blackboards, maps, and other classroom fixtures. The locations and names of the schools are withheld, and we are introduced to the students on a first-name basis only. The accompanying narratives, which range from heartrending tales of pregnancy, illness, and alienation to rambling accounts of academic, sporting, and romantic adventure—thus carry substantial weight as markers of individuality.

The subject of Sarah, 2005, revels in her goth garb and makeup as she sits atop a desk, hands on her boots. Her chipped black nail polish, reddened catlike eyes, and mournful expression seem consistent with her words, “My soul is not dark. I have dealt with pain and misfortunes.” Marieke, 2005, a gorgeous, swanlike blonde, purses her sensuous lips and caresses a curved wooden chair. Her statement maintains that she is addicted to reading and additionally informs us that she is in Andover (the location of Phillips Academy, the prestigious prep school on whose campus the gallery is situated).

Often, seeming inconsistencies between self-image and the camera’s view make for the most compelling work. Gerard, 2003, for example, depicts a pensive young black man sitting bolt upright, crossing his arms in a defensive pose. His simple statement, I AM A HARDWORKING MAN AND I AM BLACK. I HAVE A NICE SMILE AND NICE LONG HAIR is so direct and untroubled that we struggle to align it with the more troubled personality hinted at in the picture. Such revealing or ambiguous intersections of physical nuance and verbal expression mesh with the detailed mapping of facial topography made possible by Bey’s medium-format camera to produce a truly engrossing study.

Francine Koslow Miller