A good portrait is not just a pretty picture; it must be of high technical quality and also reflect how the subject perceives herself, and how she wants the world to see her.
I recently became reaquainted with how stressful shooting this kind of photo can be after lifting my ban on portraits to take my niece’s senior pictures. It was a stressful experience for the reasons listed above, and it was a great relief when she found two pictures out of the 480 I shot that were good enough. I was proud of myself and began thinking maybe I should photograph people more often. My newfound confidence was shattered when I toured the latest exhibit at Michigan State Univerity’s Kresge Art Museum.
“Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey” is a small selection of portraits from a 15-year project, during which Bey spent three to four weeks in various schools, taking portraits of students of diverse racial, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.
The exhibit statement accurately describes Bey’s approach to his subjects to be “intensely attentive to their poses and gestures.” Intense is an excellent word for this body of work. His images, blown up to 40 inches by 30 inches, command more attention than a typical yearbook photo. The richness of color, the impact of the life-sized images and the intense manner in which the students gaze into the camera demand more than a passing glance from viewers.
The subjects look like typical teens, talking loud and saying nothing as they wander the mall in packs, because they are those teens. But, as this exhibit demonstrates, they are so much more. The point of this show is that society underestimates today’s teen as individuals. It may be easy to dis miss the girl with the pink hair, or the hiphop wannabee who wears his pants around his knees or the sulky androgynous one with the bad skin, but Bey gives them a chance to break those stereotypes.
He does this by asking the students to write statements about themselves, which accompany each piece. It is imperative that viewers take the time to read these statements to learn that it is true that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
The statements show these teens are all thinking about the future, and most are hopeful and optimistic. “Sometimes they are content to accomplish not a whole lot, like they think it’s enough to be an auto mechanic like their dad," curator April Kingsley noted. “Others want more. They all want to accomplish something.”
“Robert” looks like the shop-class bully looking for any reason to kick your ass in the parking lot after school. Read his statement, and one learns he’s a loving boyfriend who wears his heart on his sleeve and attributes love to giving him purpose in life.
In the meantime, Goth girl “Sarah” assures us her soul is not dark, just because her look can be purchased at Hot Topic. Most figural work gives a viewer on opportunity to draw connections between the subject and the audience, but these pictures almost ensure that connection. Somewhere among these 27 subjects, one will find bits and pieces of oneself, maybe reflected totally in one piece, maybe scattered among several. Again, the statements are key.
Kingsley saw herself in “Marieke,” a serious-looking girl from a private school. “She talks about carrying stacks of slippery books … that was me. I’d come home with everything I could carry, and read and read and read,” Kingsley said, laughing.
I found myself in “Leah.” A sullen, androgynous girl with nails bitten to the quick, she writes, “I’ve always walked around with the assumption I can figure things out, I can figure me out and I can figure you out, and I can understand how things work.” Leah finds this frustrating, and she sometimes feels the need to shut her brain off. “Good luck with that,” I murmured, wondering how she’s faired in the six years since her portrait was taken.
And then the third key to the success of this exhibit became clear. In addition to the power of the photos and the statements, there is the mystery. What happened to these kids? How many achieve their dreams? We will probably never know, and we must content ourselves with a moment in time that captures both the optimism and vulnerability of youth.
’Class Pictures: Photographs by Dawoud Bey ’
Through Dec. 19 Kresge Art Museum Corner of Auditorium and Physics roads, MSU Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday & Friday; 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. Thursday; Noon – 5 p.m. Saturday & Sunday (517) 355-7631. www.artmuseum.msu.edu