Dawoud Bey @ MAM
The lush faces of teenagers filled the shadowy white gallery space at the Milwaukee Art Museum. The exhibition of portraits by Dawoud Bey called Class Pictures (April 15-July 12, 2009) was made up of sumptuous color prints exuding dewy youth. The show catalog and text panels documented the words of each sitter. As part of his process, Bey asked the students to begin by writing something about themselves. These brief, sometimes edited texts were displayed alongside the portraits often blowing away viewer preconceptions. Bey trains the lens of his 4x5 camera on the person allowing the background elements to fall into the soft focus inherent in view camera pictures. He positions hands carefully to reflect a gesture in the subject's repertoire of gestures. "What should I do with my hands?" is a typical response to posing for the camera. A generation ago Karsh focused on the mature faces and textured hands of great people. He asked them to hold cigarettes, touch faces, fold hands or point fingers as if to contemplate or confront fate. Bey is able to coax a more casual gesture from a generation that perhaps has deconstructed greatness. Wisdom and wrinkles now only make rare appearances in American visual culture though youth is ephemeral.