Dawoud Bey Photographs in Focus: Underground Railroad Sites

Laura Baptiste
Head of Communications and Public Affairs
February 23, 2021
Media - 2019.29.1 - SAAM-2019.29.1_1 - 138052
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, printed 2018, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.1, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #1 (Picket Fence and Farmhouse) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, printed 2018, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.1, © 2019, Dawoud Bey

Since 1975, photographer Dawoud Bey has developed a body of work distinguished for its commitment to portraiture. For Night Coming Tenderly Black, Bey turned to the vast historical subject of the Underground Railroad. The title refers to Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’s Dream Variations, whose final refrain is “Night coming tenderly/Black like me.” The photographs were made around Cleveland and Hudson, Ohio, and show homes and patches of land rumored to have been final way stations of the network of routes and safe houses that aided enslaved African Americans on their path to freedom.

Bey’s printing references photographer Roy DeCarava, who made images of African American subjects using rich and darkly subdued tones. The scale and tonality of Bey’s prints approximate the spatial and sensory experiences of those moving furtively through the night. Deeply metaphorical, the photographs transform fields, bodies of water, and houses shrouded in darkness into symbols of hope; images that are at first claustrophobic and then liberating when understood through the lens of history.

These six photographs, recently acquired by SAAM, are part of a focused exhibition of artwork related to the Underground Railroad. Bey’s work is on view with the painting Swing Low, Sweet Chariot by William H. Johnson.  Explore highlights from SAAM’s rich collection of works by African American artists that span three centuries of creative expression in various media, including painting, sculpture, textiles, and photography.

Media - 2019.29.6 - SAAM-2019.29.6_1 - 138057
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #24 (At Lake Erie) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.6, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #24 (At Lake Erie) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.6, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Media - 2019.29.5 - SAAM-2019.29.5_1 - 138056
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #13 (Trees and Reflections), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.5, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #13 (Trees and Reflections), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.5, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Media - 2019.29.4 - SAAM-2019.29.4_1 - 138055
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.4, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #17 (Forest), from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.4, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Media - 2019.29.3 - SAAM-2019.29.3_1 - 138054
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #18 (Creek and House) from series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, printed 2018, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.3, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #18 (Creek and House) from series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, printed 2018, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.3, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Media - 2019.29.2 - SAAM-2019.29.2_1 - 138053
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #9 (The Field) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, printed 2018, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.2, © 2019, Dawoud Bey
Dawoud Bey, Untitled #9 (The Field) from the series Night Coming Tenderly, Black, 2017, printed 2018, gelatin silver print, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Ellen Benninghoven and Michael Schafer, 2019.29.2, © 2019, Dawoud Bey

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