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‘Harlem, USA’: Black culture in the 1970s

Dawoud Bey began photographing Harlem, New York, in 1975. His interest was sparked by his family's history and connection to the historic neighborhood, as well as Harlem’s role as a center of black culture in America.

The photographer James Van Der Zee also was an inspiration for Bey. Van Der Zee, who used a large-format 8×10 view camera on a tripod, documented life in the neighborhood during the Harlem Renaissance.

“Seeing photographs of African-Americans from the earlier part of the 20th century who were self-possessed was not the way in which blacks had been publicly represented in American culture, ” Bey said about Van Der Zee’s work.

Bey took to the streets of Harlem throughout the late ‘70s to document everyday life with his modern 35 mm Nikkormat FTn. He used the small camera, which makes images more rapidly than the one used by Van Der Zee, to photograph his subjects in a “slow and deliberate way, trying to create a momentarily sustained relationship with the person I was photographing,” Bey said about his approach.

“I still visit Harlem when I am in New York," he said. "It is certainly a very different place, both physically, with hotels and condominium buildings along with lavishly restored brownstones, and demographically, with the increasing presence of non-black residents. The economic demographics continue to change also, with homes now selling for millions of dollars.”

Upon completion of his five-year project in 1979, a series of his images were first shown at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The Art Institute of Chicago has acquired his complete set of vintage prints and will publish the book "Harlem, USA" with Yale University press in May 2012. An exhibition of the work will also open at the Art Institute of Chicago at that time.

- Robert W. Johnson, CNN

Bio photo courtesy Bart Harris.