Born David Edward Smikle in New York City’s Jamaica, Queens neighborhood, he changed his name to Dawoud Bey in the early 1970s. Bey graduated from Benjamin N. Cardozo High School. He studied at the School of Visual Arts in New York from 1977 to 1978, and spent the next two years as part of the CETA-funded Cultural Council Foundation Artists Project. In 1990, he graduated with a BFA in Photography from Empire State College, and received his MFA from Yale University School of Art in 1993.
Bey didn’t receive his first camera until he was 15, and has stated until that point he wanted to become a musician. Early musical inspirations included John Coltrane and early photography inspirations were James Van Der Zee and Roy Decarava. In his youth, Bey joined the Black Panthers Party and sold their newspaper on street corners.
He does not consider his work to be traditional documentary. He’ll pose subjects, remind them of gestures and sometimes give them accessories.
A product of the 1960s, Bey said both he and his work are products of the attitude, “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” This philosophy significantly influenced his artistic practice and resulted in a way of working that is both community-focused and collaborative in nature. Bey’s earliest photographs, in the style of street photography, evolved into a seminal five-year project documenting the everyday life and people of Harlem in Harlem USA (1975–1979) that was exhibited at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979. In 2012, the Art Institute of Chicago mounted the first complete showing of the “Harlem, USA” photographs since that original exhibition, adding several never before printed photographs to the original group of twenty-five vintage prints. The complete group of photographs were acquired at that time by the AIC.
During the 1980s, Bey collaborated with the artist David Hammons, documenting the latter’s performance pieces – Bliz-aard Ball Sale and Pissed Off.
Over time Bey proves that he develops a bond with his subjects with being more political. The article “Exhibits Challenge Us Not to Look Away Photographers Focus on Pain, Reality in the City” by Carolyn Cohen from the Boston Globe, identifies Bey’s work as having a “definite political edge” to it according to Roy DeCarava. He writes more about the aesthetics of Beys work and how it is associated with documentary photography and how his work shows empathy for his subjects. This article also mentions Bey exhibiting his work at the Walker Art Center, where Kelly Jones identifies the strength of his work and his relationship with his subjects once again.
Of his work with teenagers Bey has said, “My interest in young people has to do with the fact that they are the arbiters of style in the community; their appearance speaks most strongly of how a community of people defines themselves at a particular historical moment.” During a residency at the Addison Gallery of American Art in 1992, Bey began photographing students from a variety of high schools both public and private, in an effort to “reach across lines of presumed differences” among the students and communities. This new direction in his work guided Bey for the next fifteen years, including two additional residencies at the Addison, an ample number of similar projects across the country, and culminated in a major 2007 exhibition and publication of portraits of teenagers organized by Aperture and entitled Class Pictures. Alongside each of the photographs in Class Pictures, is a personal statement written by each subject. “[Bey] manages to capture all the complicated feelings of being young — the angst, the weight of enormous expectations, the hope for the future — with a single look.”
Bey’s “The Birmingham Project” was inspired, in part, by a 1960s Civil Rights era photograph by Frank Dandridge of 16th Street Baptist Church bombing victim, Sarah Jean Collins. The Project includes a series of diptychs of an older person, alive when the bombing occurred, paired with a child the age of the victims, portraying “an almost unbearable sense of absence and loss.” In 2018, his project Night Coming Tenderly, Black, consists of a series of photographs evoking the imagined experience of escaped slaves moving northward along the Underground Railroad. This work involves not portraits but landscapes, portrayed at night through the means a little used silver-gelatin process. The work seeks to evoke both terror and hope in a “land of fugitives”.