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Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities

On Photographing People and Communities

Aperture Photography Workshop Series

Dawoud Bey on Photographing People and Communities is part of the Aperture Photography Workshop Series. As with Mary Ellen Mark on the Portrait and the Moment, the guiding concept behind the book is to mirror the experience of attending a workshop by a master photographer or photographers.

While the books do not really match up to the experience of an in-person workshop they do contain an excellent mix of photographs and commentary by outstanding contemporary photographers.

Bey is a professor and Distinguished Artist at Columbia College, Chicago, whose portraits are firmly in the documentary tradition. His color portraits have a soft, simple style that is dramatic, but not overly so. The technique never overshadows the subject.

Throughout the book Bey provides brief commentary on each photograph or series of photographs, detailing why he chose a particular project and what he was hoping to convey. The commentary is organized into brief bite-sized sections, which gives the reader the option to either read the book from front to back or to skip around, taking lessons and insights from each section.

As with all of the Aperture Photography Workshop series, the book serves as an excellent portfolio of the author’s work, while including valuable and insightful suggestions. While there are many excellent photography critics and historians that provide valuable insights into a photographer’s personal vision, there is something to be said for reading the photographer’s own words about what was going through their mind at the time of the photograph and how they took the photograph.

As might be expected from someone who teaches photography, Bey’s approach is both insightful and instructive. His writing has the effect of putting the reader very much at ease and gently guiding fellow photographers through the challenge of creating memorable and honest portraits. Like many great photographers, Bey is a “keep it simple” type – even though many of his photographs were made using a 265-pound view camera on wheels with a Polaroid back, the lighting is simple and minimalist. The same look could be emulated by any contemporary digital camera.

As of this writing, I’ve picked up six of Aperture’s Photography Workshop books. All the books are worth owning, but if I had to rank them, Bey’s would be near the top.

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