Dawoud Bey: the Art Institute of Chicago has recently added the complete set of Harlem, U.S.A. to its permanent collection

The Art Institute of Chicago has recently added the complete set of Harlem, U.S.A.–an iconic series of 25 images by acclaimed photographer Dawoud Bey (American, born 1953)–to its permanent collection. This major acquisition of photographs, almost all in vintage prints, has been made possible by contributions from more than two dozen patrons, including members of the Photography Committee and the Leadership Advisory Committee (LAC). To celebrate the occasion, the Art Institute will present Harlem, U.S.A. in the Modern Wing’s Bucksbaum Gallery (G189) from May 2 through September 9, 2012 . This is the first time since its premiere more than 30 years ago that the artist’s debut series will be seen in its entirety. An additional five photographs from that time–related to the series but never before printed or exhibited–have been donated by Bey to the museum and will also be on display.

Anita Blanchard, a member of the LAC’s executive committee, and Art Institute trustee Les Coney helped to spearhead the acquisition effort. According to Blanchard, the acquisition project involved a wide and varied group of donors. “Community is such an important aspect of Dawoud Bey’s work, which has made this unique process and the LAC’s involvement all the more appropriate,” she noted.

In 1979, Dawoud Bey exhibited 25 photographs at the Studio Museum in Harlem under the title Harlem, U.S.A. The images captured a young artist’s vision of a moment in the neighborhood’s life and documented the photographer’s deep connections to the area. Bey was affected by the 1969 Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition Harlem on My Mind, which he credits with giving him the determination to become an artist. Six years later, he began his artistic career by focusing on life in Harlem, a neighborhood to which he had great family ties. The project occupied him for three and a half years and culminated with a residency at the Studio Museum.

Harlem, U.S.A. appears fresh today partly because the photographs–all small, black-and-white pictures taken on the street–differ so much from Bey’s later work: large-scale, multi-part color images typically made in a controlled indoor environment. Yet, the sensitively composed images in Harlem, U.S.A. radiate an emphasis on calm and dignity that would become hallmarks of Bey’s approach. Like the 20th-century German photographer August Sander, Bey wanted to show the “types” of Harlem’s residents: the barber, the patrician, the church ladies, the hip youth. He was searching for a way to combine the specificity of photography, which only knows how to record details, with the diversity of Harlem, a neighborhood as varied as any in the country. Bey exchanged New York for Chicago many years ago, reinforcing the bridge between the two cities established at the time of the Harlem Renaissance–a period Bey conspicuously references in Harlem U.S.A.