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In a brooding photograph, coarse waves ripple the surface of a cloud-shrouded lake, an abyss of water and sky that appears on the brink of a tempest. The large gelatin silver print is rendered in deep charcoal tones that hinge on total blackness, pushing it toward the precipice of legibility. The work, Untitled #25 (Lake Erie and Sky) (2017) by photographer Dawoud Bey, exudes a quiet confidence in its representation of nature. In it, a stark sky creates a central horizon line that opens into a velvety expanse of cresting waves—a minimalist landscape that recalls the graphite drawings of Vija Celmins or the similarly composed seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto. More than a compositional meditation on the vastness of nature, however, Bey’s depiction of this specific body of water—Lake Erie in northeastern Ohio—conjures distinct historical and conceptual concerns. The lake straddles the border between the United States and Canada, a demarcation that splits its oblong form. Peering northward toward this impalpable, watery boundary, Bey’s photograph represents the vista that enslaved people would have encountered at the end of their arduous journey along the Midwest portion of the Underground Railroad, which spilled into the Great Lakes and Canada. (The passage of the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, which legalized the kidnapping of escaped enslaved people anywhere in the U.S., made Canada the least dangerous destination for those attempting to flee the horrors of bondage.1) In this context, Bey’s composition of water and air—slippery and evasive forms of matter—suggests the promise of emancipation. This aqueous landscape also serves, perhaps, as a powerful and poetic counterpoint to the nightmarish ocean-scape of the Middle Passage, which for centuries fed the bloated industry of chattel slavery.
Untitled #25 is the last in a series of 25 photographs that investigate the contemporary Ohio landscape of the Underground Railroad, depicting the sites of both real and purported safe houses, or stations, as they exist today. Three of these works were recently on view in Dawoud Bey: Pictures 1979 – 2019 at Sean Kelly, while seven others, including Untitled #25, were featured in the concurrent exhibition Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue at the Getty Center. The title of the series, Night Coming Tenderly, Black (all works 2017), references the last line of Langston Hughes’ two-stanza poem “Dream Variations” (1926), in which the poet relishes the dream-like freedom of twirling in the sunshine “Till the white day is done,” before falling into the gentle embrace of night, welcomed by the speaker as “Black like me.”2 Echoing Hughes’ celebration of the lush tones of dusk, and deliberately referencing photographer Roy DeCarava’s similar use of tonal blackness, Bey actually photographed his scenes in broad daylight, but manipulated his prints in the darkroom to appear under-illuminated, as if taken at night. This laborious technical process involved intentionally overprinting the negatives, substantially minimizing both the midtones and highlights to render a near-black image.3 The indiscernibility of the resulting works, which predominantly feature natural terrain seemingly bathed in the dimness of twilight, serves to alter our perception of the landscape, revealing it as it would have been perceived by the countless people who traversed it by nightfall in search of safe passage to Canada. Crucially, the actual gelatin silver prints created by Bey appear dramatically darker than the versions that the artist prepared for digital reproduction: The physical prints exhibit a rich inky finish and read as onyx in tone, while the reproductions, as seen here, depict a much more generous amount of detail and light variation.4 With this gesture, Bey asserts the photograph as a haptic object while also directing a singular perceptual experience for the viewer—an act of looking akin to an engrossing act of bearing witness. Like Hughes’ poem, these images posit the midnight landscape as a living place of lyrical liberation, collapsing the space between day and night and articulating the opacity of darkness as both a literal and metaphorical conduit for self-emancipation.
Bey’s photographic exploration of the landscape marks a dramatic shift in his oeuvre. Until recently, he primarily focused on intimate portraits of Black subjects—first on the streets of Harlem (Harlem, U.S.A., 1975–79), much like DeCarava before him, and then notably in Birmingham, Alabama, where he delved into the searing history of the Ku Klux Klan’s 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, which killed six Black children (The Birmingham Project, 2012). “I wanted to give the Black subjects in the photographs a performative space in my pictures,” he stated to Artforum in 2021, “a space that would amplify their presence and direct their gaze out into the world.”5 As such, Bey’s subjects appear dignified and naturally at ease, and they tend to meet the gaze of the viewer both directly and indomitably. Night Coming Tenderly, Black accomplishes this through a method of reversal: Instead of physically representing his subjects, Bey represents the perspective of their gaze. In doing so, he drafts a contemplative portrait of the somatic experience of fugitivity, endowing it with intimacy.
Bey’s photographs mediate the space between subject and viewer, compressing these two discrete perspectives into one. This requires thoughtful direction; he takes all of these photographs at eye level, for example, and utilizes the lens’ ability to blur and sharpen its focus as a tool for imparting the visual sensation of physically moving through space. He also conjures the sensations of fugitivity through scale: The size of these photographs, immense for gelatin silver prints, envelope the viewer’s physical presence. Here, our bodies double as fugitive bodies, whose corporeal forms the darkness itself cradles.
While Untitled #25 places us within the expanse of Lake Erie, Untitled #4 (Leaves and Porch) casts our gaze upon a more intimate and mundane experience of the landscape. Here, strands of leafy foliage partly obscure the view of a white porch, which appears to be close to the camera, perhaps just out of arm’s reach. The unremarkable, seemingly haphazard framing suggests creeping movement, as if the person whose gaze Bey has adopted and for whom the camera is a surrogate hesitantly peers toward the entryway from the periphery, attempting to remain unseen. The image’s depth of field is shallow, which seems to approximate natural human eyesight—only a portion of the greenery in the photograph is in focus while the rest remains in a blur, as if we are perceiving the scene through the rapidity of darting eyes. The porch emits no light, a foreboding scene in the darkness. As safe houses tended to be unmarked (and thus the premise of safety constantly in flux), the tension between peril and asylum seeps through this work: While darkness can be a haven (a “tender blackness,” in Bey’s words), it also portends danger.6
Bey’s nuanced use of blackness as both technique and metaphor buttresses the project’s conceptual rigor. In a recent walkthrough of his exhibition at Sean Kelly, he explained that these photographs “were printed to approximate this idea of the Black subject, the Black narrative, and the blackness of the photographic print itself as a way of expressing an idea about Blackness as narrative, subject, and object;” they also harness “the idea of fugitivity—moving through the landscape under cover of darkness.”7 In this sense, these images, rich in their tangible, tender Blackness, act as portals to a space where the discrete perspectives that Bey invokes—that of the Black author, narrative, and subject—can freely coexist with complexity.
In an 1864 speech entitled “Pictures and Progress,” Frederick Douglass, the most photographed person in nineteenth-century America, made similar assessments about the complex nature of Black subjectivity and the representative power of photography. Through the proliferation of his photographic likeness throughout his lifetime, Douglass aimed to counter the vast arsenal of racist imagery propagated by slave-holding, white supremacist society, which exploited and denied the individual subjectivities of Black people. By “present[ing] a range of selves over time,” Henry Louis Gates writes, Douglass asserted that “not only did the black object [in this case, Douglass himself] actually, all along, embody subjectivity, but this subjectivity evolved and mutated over time.”8 This assortment of photographs allowed Douglass to craft a mosaic of his personality, visually reaffirming the existence of his personhood, and by extension, the personhood of Black Americans in general. While as a public figure, he exerted some control over his image, the visual archive of slavery remains deeply skewed, steeped in the violent spectacle of the enslaved individual as disenfranchised, objectified property.
Unlike written testimony, photographs created by enslaved people remain either unknown or completely nonexistent; Bey’s photographs disrupt this chasm of representation, offering a crucial shift in vantage point. Stephen Best notes: “When it comes to the representation of the inner life of the enslaved, few of our sources are visual in nature. For slaves are not the subject of the visual imagination, they are its object.”9 Therefore, by rejecting essentialized depictions of the body—and thus the spectacle of enslavement—and instead considering the visual perspective of enslaved people, Bey poetically eulogizes the tens of thousands of anonymous men, women, and children who through intrepid acts of resistance sought self-emancipation by way of the land. Bey’s omission of the body ultimately functions as a tender embrace—like the dark night itself—designed to shield the subject from further visual consumption and external harm.
The landscape, then, functions as a primary subject within these images. While several photographs, such as the aforementioned Untitled #4, depict homes or structures, most in the series depict only the natural terrain of northeastern Ohio. The resulting mix of real and imagined Underground Railroad sites emerges in Bey’s work partly by necessity. While conducting extensive research for this project, Bey discovered that the exact sites of many of the area’s Underground Railroad stations are either rumored or unknown, predominantly due to the secretive nature of the route itself. Thus, Bey offers a mythic approximation of the journey: His photographs craft a reverse archeology, using the unmarked land—a tether between past and present—as a cipher for both the emotive and physical experience of escape, if not the precise pathway. In 2019, he spoke of the land as a preternatural guide for the work, stating, “when I got there, almost inexplicably, I felt a very strong presence, unlike anything that I have felt related to any other photograph. So, at that point, I said to myself, this isn’t an imagined site. This is an actual location.”10 The photographs embody this metaphysical presence. In discussing his work at the Sean Kelly exhibition, Bey succinctly summarized his embrace of this allusive approach, which evades a didactic or literal reading, declaring: “I’m a poet, I’m not an essayist.” As such, his pictorial framing of the land, much like his compositional omission of the body, eschews the aesthetics of spectacle in favor of something more poetic.
In works such as Untitled #7 (Branches and Woods), Untitled #11 (Bent Branches), and Untitled #16 (Branches with Thorns), matrices of tree limbs tangle into silvery abstractions. In Untitled #12 (The Marsh) and Untitled #13 (Trees and Reflections), spindly landscapes meet their reflections in the still water below. Although charged with meaning, these vistas appear decidedly non-monumental—their visual compositions fail to overtly signal the urgency of their historical context. This represents a departure from the precedents set forth by prominent American landscape photographers (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, et al.) who framed the monumentality of the natural world as a coda for American exceptionalism. The somber intimacy of Bey’s work intrinsically rejects this idealism. Although a corridor to emancipation, the landscape is far from a neutral entity. The specter of violence typifies the historical relationship between slavery and the natural world—slaveholders, for instance, forced enslaved people to construct the architecture of their enslavement and then perpetually maintain and harvest the surrounding land, a history Bey investigates in the series In This Here Place (2019–21), which depicts the sites of the Evergreen, Destrehan, Laura, Oak Alley, and Whitney Plantations in Louisiana. Furthermore, between 1882 and 1968, a period that African American studies professor Leigh Raiford refers to as the lynching epidemic, “photography emerged as integral to the lynching spectacle,” with the image of the noose hanging from a tree—one of the most horrific American visual symbols of anti-Black violence—functioning as the central motif.11 In this context, Bey’s framing of delicate tree limbs in the unpeopled landscape can be read as even more urgently corrective. These images also offer a rebuke of twentieth-century “sundown towns,”12 prevalent throughout Ohio, whose hostile white residents openly threatened Black people with violence after sundown. Reclaiming the beauty of the darkened landscape, then, the illegibility of Bey’s photographs serves to honor and safeguard the bodily sovereignty of his implied subjects.
Although the American landscape remains undeniably steeped in blood, it seeps not only from the sins of slavery. While not an explicit reference in Bey’s work, the Lake Erie area depicted in his photographs formerly harbored the eponymous Erie tribe. Also known as Eriehronon or Eriquehronon, their written history stems from the French Jesuits who occupied the area in the seventeenth century but never directly interacted with the Erie people.13 Thus, their archeological and cultural history remains largely unknown, now another incomplete memory embedded within the index of the landscape.14 Bey’s extricated histories serve as a reminder that many more still lay buried. By using landscape photography as a poetic form to impel a marginalized historical narrative, Night Coming Tenderly, Black not only challenges traditional representations of the American landscape but also proposes this genre as a somatic vessel for the memories and bodies once contained on its surface—regardless of how unmarked, unnamed, or illegible their narratives may be.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 33.