Designing Dawoud Bey’s Brilliant New Book

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The exhibit “Dawoud Bey: An American Project” opened at SFMOMA in mid-February—and, well, you know what happened next. The museum may have closed because of COVID-19, but luckily the photographer’s book Dawoud Bey: Two American Projects accompanied it, and is out now featuring design by Pentagram’s Eddie Opara and his team.

Bey won a MacArthur in 2017 for “Using an expansive approach to photography that creates new spaces of engagement within cultural institutions, making them more meaningful to and representative of the communities in which they are situated.” The two projects documented in the book are collections of Dawoud’s striking large-format black-and-white photographs.

The first, “Night Coming Tenderly, Black,” traces the experience of a slave escaping the South along the Underground Railroad—powerfully giving viewers the perspective of wooded areas, houses beyond fences, and sites real and imagined on the journey to Canada. The title references the closing refrain of Langston Hughes’ poem “Dream Variations,” which precedes the photos in an expressive type treatment.

The second collection, “The Birmingham Project,” pays homage to the six youths killed in the KKK bombing of a Baptist church in 1963. The photos, initially released on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, appear as diptychs capturing two subjects: a child the age of one of the murdered youths, and an adult the age they would have been had they been allowed to grow up.

For the design, Opara and his team of Raoul Gottschling and Chantal Jahchan focused on a restrained and refined treatment that amplifies the work itself. And there’s so much going on within it.

Juxtapositions in typography echo the contrasts in the series and suggest a demarcation between two worlds,” Pentagram writes. “Type is arranged to emphasize certain words and phrases, hinting at motion and shifts in time and perspective while also creating tension within the space of the page. Titles are set in Berlingske Serif, a modern version of a classic calligraphy-built serif (designed by Playtype) that evokes a sense of history. The serif typeface Bradford (by Lineto) and sans serif Whyte Inktrap (by Dinamo) are used for text.”

Check out more of the book below—and to order a copy, click here.