It’s not surprising that acclaimed portrait photographer Dawoud Bey first became aware of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing through a photograph. When he was a youngster growing up in Queens in New York City, Bey’s parents had brought home a book of photographs of the Civil Rights Movement. One particular image has never left him. “It’s a photograph of one of the girls who had survived the blast, but had been blinded, and she was laying on a stretcher with these two big cotton pads covering up her eyes,” he recalled. “And it was such a horrific moment, so vividly described in terms of the aftermath, that I never forgot it.”
The girl in the photo was of 12-year old Sarah Jean Collins, the sister of one of the four little girls murdered on September 15, 1963 by a bomb set by members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Bey approached the Birmingham Museum of Art around seven years ago with the idea for a commemorative work on the 50th anniversary of that tragic day when Denise McNair, 11, and three 14-year-olds–Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Carole Robertson–were killed by the bomb set by Robert E. “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss and others. On that same day, 13-year-old Virgil Ware was shot to death by two white teens while riding his bicycle, and Johnny Robinson, 16, was shot in the back by Birmingham Police while fleeing after reportedly throwing rocks at cars to protest the church bombing.
Bey said he felt “provoked to do something with this, to come to Birmingham, and to kind of come to terms with that moment some kind of way, by making work about it.”
Bey’s The Birmingham Project, commissioned by the BMA as part of its upcoming 2013 commemoration exhibitions, will be a combination of large scale photographic portraits and a two-channel video accompaniment. To represent the four girls and two boys whose lives were taken that day, Bey is using contemporary subjects from Birmingham. He plans to create diptychs, one side depicting a girl or boy at the same age as one of the victims, and the other side being a man or woman who are now the ages those victims would be if they had never been killed.
“I had the idea of photographing younger and older subjects almost from the outset. How do you show the passage of time when you can’t literally do that? I figured if you show a younger person and someone from that same community who is the age that they would have been to suggest that passage of time, that maybe something evocative could come out of that.”
Bey plans to make the portraits fairly large because he wants to give them a monumental aspect. “I want them to have a very real physical presence. Together, they’ll be 64” x 40”, so they’ll have a pretty commanding presence, as commanding a presence as those portraits of George Washington , those historical portraits. I’m interested in giving ordinary people that same kind of heightened presence.” Citing the painter Rembrandt as one of his earliest influences, Bey says that he has an ongoing interest with the history of portraiture. “It’s very much a conversation with the devices of historical painting and applying those devices to a radically different contemporary subject,” he said.
The second part of Bey’s work is the two-channel video, which he called “ a meditation on that Sunday morning.” One channel will show the trajectories of the four girls on their way to the church and the other will show four different social spaces within the community, “empty and quiet , as they would have been on that morning,” Bey said. “One of the descriptions I read about that morning was that it was a bright blue fall morning, a beautiful bright blue fall morning, and that’s exactly the kind of light and day that I shot the video on.”
Bey said that his intention is “to put together a multidimensional visualization of the place, the people, the history, that moment over-layed with this moment. I’m trying to create a very richly layered, evocative representation that all has to do with that moment in 1963.”
Bey’s hope is that the work can become a meaningful part of the conversation around the history of the city. “I have a feeling that there are conversations that still need to be had, that I want this work to be a part of provoking that.”
While the image of “Bombing-ham” has been part of Bey’s and the wider collective consciousness, he said it is important to separate the mythos from the reality. Through his visits to Birmingham he has found that separation and discovered a more “nuanced and complex” history that goes beyond just one moment. “The church has been a lot of things, both before then and since then, and I think the church is very adamant about not allowing itself to be defined by that.”
Throughout his career, Bey’s subjects have been largely either African-American or young people. Both groups have been “marginalized and represented in one-dimensional ways,” he said, adding that this is particularly true within the culture of museums, where he does most of his work. Recognizing this, Bey’s work is often inclusive of the surrounding communities in order to transform the dynamic of those relationships. “A big part of the work that I do in the process of making my work is finding ways for the museum as an institution to be more engaging with the community surrounding them,” he said.
Although Bey has shot most of the video, the portraits are an ongoing effort. The main issue has been finding the right subjects from the African-American community. He said, “People are curious and they want to participate, the challenge has been to reach out deeply enough to let people know that I’m doing this, and to also let them know that I need a response from a very specific age.”
Bey has reached out to the community through churches, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, the museum, flyers, social service agencies, and has even put an ad on Craigslist. He says he is still definitely looking for people, particularly for boys and men, who he says are always harder to get involved. “I keep basically trying to tweak the outreach process to find whatever people who don’t seem to responding,” he said.
Bey expects to continue the project through January, or through the spring if necessary to find the right participants. If you would like to participate in the project, contact Ron Platt, the BMA curator of contemporary art, at (205) 533-4280.