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Artist Dawoud Bey photographed American youth in cities around the country. "Class Pictures" is the culmination of five years of interviews.

"Class Pictures" of social and emotional complexity

Dawoud Bey's "Class Pictures" is by no means simply a photography exhibit.

On display at the Milwaukee Art Museum through mid-July, Bey's larger than life photographic portraits side by side with subject written monologues capture the voice and expression of the American high school student.

Photographing and interviewing students from private and public high schools in Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, California and New York, Bey presetns not only a visible representation of "true" American diversity, but also a cultural revelation about what it means to be a young adult in the 21st century. The series is as much documentary as it is fine art and unapologetically battles a balance of teacher and student.

Bey, who began his photography career in 1975, had his first solo exhibit, "Harlem, USA," in 1979. In the subsequent 30 years, Bey's work focused on young people at a particular moment in time, aiming to dispel common assumptions and expose the emotional and social complexity of this often overlooked population.

As "Class Pictures" demonstrates, Bey's lens lifts the social pressure to hide, the peer pressure to fit in and the collective pressure not to reveal too much. Startlingly poetic in their words, themes of racism, classism, immigration, family experience, cultural integration, hope and regret run through the dichotomy of individual stories and personal perspectives.

In each photo, the subject is starring directly into the camera. Students -- mostly flat and unemotional in expression or at times adding a vague smile -- admit a blunt and vulnerable honesty. The photographs are a true look at the inner self devoid of situational emotion, the overarching umbrella of high school is the one commonality connecting each and every subject.

Bey accomplishes what truly transformative art is meant to achieve; illuminating the divergence of appearance versus reality by eliciting feelings and descriptions unlikely to surface in common interaction. His work picks up on the place where inner expression collides with outer impression through individual attention and youth empowerment.

"Class Pictures" is profoundly more than a photography exhibit travelling a tour of prestigious museums and institutes. Earlier in the week, got the chance to ask Bey a few questions and find out more about the artist and social scientist behind "Class Pictures." "Class Pictures" has been five years in the works. Did you initially plan on creating a project with such creative longevity?

Dawoud Bey: I have been photographing young people as my primary subject since 1992, but the photographs for "Class Pictures" are from 2002-2006. I am always both engaged with the subject and deeply engaged in the idea of how the world looks through the optical and mechanical means of the camera. Those two things allow me a lot of room and space for a sustained kind of process.

OMC: What do you feel is the power of portraiture?

DB: If done well, portraits have the power to create a momentary sense of recognition of oneself in a stranger, to create a momentary quality of empathy, so that we feel we know something about someone that we have never met.

OMC: In the past, you've said your work reflects concepts of "If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." Why do you feel it's important to attach social action to your work? How is "Class Pictures" a part of the solution?

DB: That slogan was popularized during the late 1960s and early 1970s and it suggested to me that everything that one did could be a corrective action or an action reaffirming the status quo. I always wanted my photographs to challenge the status quo, to contest the kinds of images that existed in popular culture, that staked out my own sense of who and what the subject matter was and why they're important.

I think that society has a very one dimensional view of young people. I hope that through my photographs and the student's text in "Class Pictures" a more complex description of young people emerges; one that might shake people out of complacent views about teenagers.

OMC: How do you see photography as a medium of cultural shift? What about photography lends itself to reaching across borders or cultural lines?

DB: Photographs are everywhere and photography has an immediacy and familiarity that no other medium does. This is both photography's blessing and its curse. Its very familiarity keeps people from engaging with it critically even as they consume photographs almost effortlessly. Because it is a broadly accessible medium I think it has the ability to viscerally describe the experience of one human being to another. While my photographs are made under controlled circumstances -- with the subject being posed, and my using a large format camera and studio lighting -- I want to create an experience of an almost transparent and unmediated experience between the subject and the viewer.

OMC: As a photographer, how has your perspective/ interest evolved since your first solo show in Harlem in 1979? Do you feel "Class Pictures" takes a more mature or teacher like approach?

DB: I've always been interested in using the camera in a subjective way that allows the viewer to see the world and the people I photograph in the world through my own subjective vision. Certainly because it also introduces the subjects literal voice into the process, through their self authored texts, "Class Pictures" has allowed me to get at a greater degree of information about the person than any of my previous work. It also allows for more layering and nuance in the quality of the description about those young people.

I think the photographs have the same focused sense of presence that I have tried to bring to my work from the very beginning. I'm just able to do it more consistently now.

OMC: Why do you believe it's important to initiate dialogue between under-represented communities or populations and museums/art institutions?

DB: Teenagers are certainly under-represented within the institutional context of the museum. I think it is imperative that public institutions really examine the ways in which they engage with as broad a cross section of the public as possible. Those institutions should belong to all of us. I want my work and the audiences that my work attracts to reinforce that idea.

You can find "Class Pictures" at the Milwaukee Art Museum now through July 12.


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