Program Success Magazine Summer 2021 - Page 26

Dawoud Bey

“ Back Home in Harlem .”

By André Wheeler Guest Columnist The New Yorker
The photographer , who is the subject of a retrospective at the Whitney Museum , revisits the neighborhood that provided the backdrop for his early images , and where the old jazz clubs and theatres have been turned into banks and high-rises .
The photographer Dawoud Bey , whose work is currently the subject of a tight and topical retrospective at the Whitney Museum , stood on a Harlem sidewalk the other day and peered into the window of a Wells Fargo branch . Pedestrians streamed around him in both directions . “ This is the former location of Lenox Lounge ,” Bey said , referring to the blues-and-jazz club that showcased Billie Holiday and Miles Davis . He watched someone use an A . T . M . inside and frowned . “ It was a major social and cultural center ,” he said . “ But you would never know .”
Bey , who was born and raised in New York , was in town from Louisiana , where he is shooting photographs that explore the legacy of plantations ; the Sean Kelly Gallery , in Hudson Yards , will show the images in the fall . His day ’ s itinerary included visits to personal monuments in a Harlem that is vastly different from the one he frequented as a struggling artist almost fifty years ago . “ This is where all my formative experiences took place ,” he said . He wore a sky-blue blazer , a black button-down , and white jeans .
His second stop was St . John ’ s Baptist Church , a red brick building on 152nd Street . “ This is where my mom and dad met ,” he said , and took a seat on the steps . “ After service , we ’ d go across the street and spend some time with the McMillans .” He pointed to a nearby building and wove in and out of vivid narratives : his aunt Louise ’ s membership in the parish ’ s women ’ s group ; a dubious dry cleaner whose store may or may not still be around the corner ; and a friend of his parents named Jimmy who used to work there .
“ Jimmy was always in the back ,” Bey said with a laugh . “ It didn ’ t take me long to realize that that ’ s where the real business was happening ! The place was probably a numbers joint .” As Bey reconstructed his memories , an older man wearing a plaid shirt and a flat cap exited the church . Bey asked him if he knew the McMillans .
The man said “ Oh , yeah !” and introduced himself as the Reverend Dr . John L . Scott , a pastor at St . John ’ s . “ I ’ ve been here forty-eight years now ,” he said . Scott ran through the McMillan family tree , recounting their move to North Carolina twenty-five years ago , but then he got distracted by a teen-ager walking by in a shirt that said “ A Bathing Ape .”
“ A Boy in Front of the Loew ’ s 125th Street Movie Theater ,” from 1976
Photograph © Dawoud Bey / Courtesy the artist and Sean Kelly Gallery / Stephen Daiter Gallery / Rena Bransten Gallery