A SOTA senior in a bright red tunic and Mayor Marilyn Strickland in a suit and pearls might not seem the intuitive combination to portray Tacoma community. But for Dawoud Bey, that’s the whole idea. The internationally-renowned portrait photographer has created a new series for the University of Washington, Tacoma which combine pairs of people – some randomly chosen off the street – who’ve never met to convey the sense of Tacoma’s community through contrast. The works, now up in the college’s library building, have their official unveiling this weekend.
“It was very comfortable, very laid-back, and very quick,” said Strickland of her experience sitting for Bey during his artist residency at UWT in March.
“We were joking around,” adds Michael Wilkins, the senior at Tacoma’s School of the Arts who was chosen to share the portrait with the mayor.
Paid for by the Washington State Art in Public Places program, the 12 portraits each feature two people – who had to have strong Tacoma connections – sitting next to each other in or near the college campus. The artist, who teaches at Chicago’s Columbia College and whose work is in collections worldwide including the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, describes the project of which the UWT portraits are a part as “attempts to visualize the often complicated nature of community... (The) two individuals bring their own narratives, histories, and presences together in order to negotiate their joint presentation to the camera—and the larger world—as members of their particular community.”
For UWT chancellor Debra Friedman, who worked with Strickland to get the photographer on board, Bey’s portraits “resonate deeply with our mission as an urban-serving university. In his work, the portrait pairings emphasize the power of the unexpected. In our work, the biggest impact is made on families and communities by the most unlikely students.”
The Strickland-Wilkins portrait emphasizes contrast: Wilkins, a teenager, is sitting cross-legged and wearing a colorful ethnic outfit that he designed and made himself the night before. Strickland sits next to him with hands folded on rather prim knees and an ambiguous Mona Lisa expression.
“Some photographers ask you to smile for the camera,” Strickland explained. “He deliberately asked us to sit with our normal expression.”
Wilkins, who also acted as one of Bey’s assistants during the project, describes Bey’s process as quick, involving a Polaroid check before multiple shots on film – just four minutes for each shoot.
“It was a really intimate setting,” he says. “I felt pretty comfortable.”
Wilkins, who got involved through his school photography class, says he also learned a lot about studio lighting, film photography and other technical aspects.
And was Strickland happy with the portrait?
“Absolutely,” says the mayor.
The UWT’s Dawoud Bey portrait installation will be unveiled 4-6 p.m. Nov. 2. Free. Power House, Snoqualmie Library, University of Washington Tacoma, 1900 Commerce St., Tacoma. Registration required: tacoma.uw.edu/dawoudbey
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 email@example.com