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Dawoud Bey retrospective is picture-perfect

“Charita” (2001) is part Dawoud Bey’s “Street Portraits” series photos young people he photographed near his Hyde Park home. |

“Charita” (2001), is part of Dawoud Bey’s “Street Portraits” series of photos of young people he photographed near his Hyde Park home. | COPYRIGHT Dawoud BEY

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‘Dawoud Bey, Picturing People’

♦ Through June 24

♦ Renaissance Society, University of Chicago, Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis, Hyde Park

♦ Free

♦ 773-702-8670;

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Updated: June 29, 2012 8:10AM

Moving out of the darkroom into the digital age and planting itself in the center of contemporary art, photography has undergone a seismic transformation in the past four decades.

There for all of these changes has been the ever-evolving Dawoud Bey, a Hyde Park photographer who has built a national reputation with probing, insightful images of usually ordinary people, often on the very streets where they live.

His accomplishments are showcased in “Dawoud Bey, Picturing People,” one of the largest and most comprehensive overviews of his work since a 1995 show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. The just-opened career survey runs through June 24 at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society.

Bey, who was born in New York City in 1953, first made a name for himself in 1979 with “Harlem U.S.A.” The five-year series of black-and-white photographs (on view in its entirety through Sept. 9 at the Art Institute of Chicago) depicts everyday life in this celebrated historically African-American neighborhood. These street images stand out for their handsome, unforced compositions, their posed yet still-in-the-moment feel and the simple, respectful honesty with which Bey treated his subjects — qualities that endure to one degree or another in all his later works.

But “Harlem U.S.A.,” which is heavily indebted to earlier Harlem chroniclers like James Van Der Zee and Roy DeCarava, looks back as much as its looks forward — a traditional kind of documentary approach that can be traced back decades. With artists as diverse as Andy Warhol, Edward Ruscha and Cindy Sherman taking photography in unprecedented, conceptual directions, Bey knew he had to adapt if he was going to remain relevant. And that is exactly what he did.

While the Renaissance Society show begins with nine images from the 1980s that continue Bey’s efforts in “Harlem U.S.A.,” it quickly turns to his later artistic ventures, beginning with his experimental use of a large-format Polaroid camera. These Polaroid portraits, which gained him a second round of national recognition, reach their apex in large, mosaic-like color works such as the eight-section “Larry, David, and Jason” (1993), which measures 66 by 88 inches.

In these pieces, Bey amped up the scale of his images, boldly asserting them as Artworks and not merely photographs, and split up the imagery in innovative ways that demanded new modes of perception.

In his more recent works, he has been less concerned with photographic process and more interested in the subject matter, joining artists such as Rineke Dijkstra and Katy Grannan who explore identity and inner psyche in unblinking portraits.

Context tends be important to this brand of investigative portraiture, which holds an important place on the contemporary scene, and Bey embraced it in a series that culminated with a 2007 exhibition and publication titled “Class Pictures.” He photographed students at public and private high schools, presenting each of the resulting images with an accompanying personal statement from the sitter — an inventive and sometimes revealing tack.

But the most successful of his recent projects is a series called “Street Portraits,” images of young people shot right outside of his home near Hyde Park Boulevard and 53rd Street — in some ways a return to “Harlem U.S.A.” These 50-by-40-inch images, like “Charita” (2001) or “Smokey” (2001), offer bold, compelling glimpses at their posed subjects and also share a little of the welcome candid feeling of those earlier street shots in New York City.

The exhibition ends with the photographer’s latest series, “Strangers/Community,” portraits in which he pairs people from different realms of life. He clearly was hoping that such forced encounters would provoke interesting frissons of emotional energy, but these pieces are strangely inert and unaffecting.

Bey’s photography has evolved right along with the medium that has consumed him for 37 years, but one thing that has not changed is his unwavering commitment to the one subject that never grows old — us.

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer and critic.

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