“Artmaking doesn’t take place in a vacuum,” photographer Dawoud Bey emphasized during a recent chat about “Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue,” the current exhibition running at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 22, 2023. The exhibition, which Bey called an outgrowth and visualization of the conversations the two friends have had since meeting in a photography class in 1976, features over 140 works from the two artists. 

“Dawoud Bey and Carrie Mae Weems are two formidable photographers,” said Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s curator of modern and contemporary art, during a recent walk-through of the exhibition. In fact, she added, they might be among the “most important photographers working today.”

Over the decades, these two artists have become known for their explorations of Black life in America, melding history with the present through intimate portraits, thoughtful landscapes and carefully crafted visual storytelling. Bey called their friendship a kind of “inspiration of ambition,” where the two photographers inspired each other to push the boundaries of their medium as they’ve watched photography evolve over the decades. The exhibition then acts as a sort of timeline of their growth and development over the years, moving from early documentary-style photographs capturing daily life for Black Americans to works that reflect on key historical moments.

“We came of age in the ’60s, so there’s a certain kind of radical impulse that’s at the root of our work,” Bey said. “This notion that our work is a platform to which we speak, but also to which we allow others to speak through our work has been central to our ongoing conversations. That it’s not just about us.”

The exhibition is broken into sections, with each artist given space that showcases a particular moment or series in their career, allowing you to track both their individual development as artists and how their work winds up reflecting their mutual curiosity and interests. As I walked through the exhibition earlier this month, I took note of a few of the most striking elements and themes that have stuck with me.

Capturing life

Immediately upon entering the exhibition, which begins with early work from both photographers, I was grabbed by how both artists effortlessly captured Black life. Especially with some of Weems’ early photographs, it almost felt like they were candid moments borrowed from family photo albums. But as you continue through the side that has Weems’ work, you see the composition evolve to works like “Meg and Coco,” which could be a still pulled from a documentary film, telling the story of a woman and child leaving something unknown behind.

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Meanwhile, Bey’s documentary-style photographs take a different developmental path, growing from candid shots to more posed portraits like “A Young Girl Striking a Pose” that pull you in and make you curious about the lives from which these people paused to be photographed.

Absence

It’s a small thing, but both of these photographers are so known for their ability to capture life that what hit me, especially in their early work, was when there was an absence of people in one of their photographs. In works like Bey’s “On the Way to El Yunque, Puerto Rico” and “Four Shirts, Ponce, Puerto Rico,” no actual people are featured. But, perhaps because they’re surrounded by his other more populated works, you can still feel the life in them. In “On the Way to El Yunque” especially, Bey almost begs you to ask what happened. In a way that differs from his later landscapes, it asks you to wonder what happened in and to this building and the people who have vacated it.

Portraits

Easily the most powerful aspect of Bey’s work throughout the exhibition is his portraits. While his streetside portraits seem to invite you to take in the whole of the person presented, works like “Taneesha,” a series of three close-up photographs, seem to ask you to take in bits and pieces to create the whole in your head. The photos show a touch of the hair or a downward look, as if capturing the person not as a single posed moment, but as a series of quick glances. 

And then that is contrasted strongly with “The Birmingham Project,” in which Bey memorializes the deaths of four young Black girls during a bombing in 1963 at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Alabama and two additional Black children who died during the subsequent aftermath. In the series, Bey enlists current Birmingham residents who are the same age as those murdered in ’63 and pairs them with adults 50 years older to pose for stoic portraits. It’s a staggering way to examine life, loss and the pain of that historical moment.

Text and storytelling

As Bey’s career pressed against the potential of portraiture, Weems played more with the potential of text and narratives. In her “Sea Island Series,” Weems carefully pairs landscapes of the coastal Sea Islands off Georgia and the Carolinas with text evoking the Gullah culture that developed there. And then with “The Kitchen Table Series,” Weems tells an actual story, with text woven throughout her series of images. 

“He wanted children. She didn’t. At the height of their love a child was born,” reads part of the story in the series. As you take in the story, the photos seem to shift and change. A look may take on more of a glint of resentment, or you may notice the distance between a man and woman more. Each photo is so carefully posed, there’s no mistaking it for something candid like some of her earlier work. Every shot is crafted around a kitchen table, which becomes a setting for a drama and Weems’ exploration of one Black woman’s life.

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Conversing with history

For last, I saved perhaps my favorite part of the exhibition, and the part that Bey said, if pressed to choose just one, continues to draw him in: “Night Coming Tenderly, Black.” In this series, Bey photographed sites in Ohio that are thought to be on the Underground Railroad. These photos feel almost darker than the rest of the exhibition. That’s partly because rather than a color range that goes from black to white, they only ever seem to manage a brightness of a dark gray. But the other part is that for many of the photos, you feel as if he’s tucked away behind a tree or hidden, looking at a potential safe house, waiting for the right moment to move. Even a photo of Lake Erie’s choppy water takes on an ominous hue. 

What really makes the section complete is its pairing with Weems, who presents a quartet of crimson-tinted photos from her series “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.” The moving series calls out the role photography has played in the past to dehumanize African Americans. These combinations of work offer a breathtaking encapsulation of what Bey and Weems have done in their careers: give voice to those forced to be voiceless.

“Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems: In Dialogue”

Through Jan. 22, 2023; Seattle Art Museum, 1300 First Ave., Seattle; $29.99 museum admission (children 14 and under free); 206-654-3100; seattleartmuseum.org