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Born David Edward Smikle in New York City's Jamaica, Queens neighborhood, he changed his name to Dawoud Bey in the early 1970s. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1977–78, graduated with a BFA in Photography from Empire State College in 1990, and received his MFA from Yale University School of Art in 1993. Over the course of his career, Bey has participated in more than 20 artist residencies, which has allowed him to work directly with the adolescent subjects of his most recent work.
A product of the 1960s, Dawoud Bey said both he and his work are products of the attitude, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”[unreliable source?] This philosophy significantly influenced his artistic practice and resulted in a way of working that is both community-focused and collaborative in nature. Bey’s earliest photographs, in the style of street photography, evolved into a five-year project documenting the everyday life and people of Harlem in Harlem USA (1975–1979).
Of his work with teenagers Bey has said, “My interest in young people has to do with the fact that they are the arbiters of style in the community; their appearance speaks most strongly of how a community of people defines themselves at a particular historical moment.” During a residency at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 1992, Bey began photographing students from a variety of high schools both public and private, in an effort to “reach across lines of presumed differences” among the students and communities. This new direction in his work guided Bey for the next fifteen years, including two additional residencies at the Addison, an ample number of similar projects across the country, and culminated in a major 2007 exhibition and publication of portraits of teenagers organized by Aperture and entitled Class Pictures. Alongside each of the photographs in Class Pictures, is a personal statement written by each subject. This rich combination of image and text expands the notion of the photographic portrait, and further creates portraits that are each incredibly powerful in its amalgamation, at times surprising, disturbing, and heart-wrenching.
Bey was the recipient of an artist fellowship at Creative Artists Public Service (CAPS), New York in 1983, an artist fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts in 1986, a regional fellowship form the National Endowment for the Arts in 1991, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 2002. He has exhibited in a number of solo and group shows including Dawoud Bey: Portraits 1975-1995 at the Walker Art Center in 1995, Dawoud Bey at the Queens Museum of Art in 1998, Dawoud Bey: The Chicago Project at the David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art in 2003, Dawoud Bey: Detroit Portraits at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 2004, and Class Pictures, organized by the Aperture Foundation and on view initially at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 2007, and then touring to museums throughout the country for four years, including the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the Milwaukee Art Museum among others.
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