Eddie Opara uses typography to enhance the impact of Dawoud Bey’s imagery

In a book design for SFMoma’s retrospective on the photographer, the Pentagram partner subtly weaves emotive themes into the layout.

5 August 2020


Just before lockdown, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York opened a major retrospective on Dawoud Bey, a seminal photographer documenting the Black American experience, titled An American Project. In tandem with the show, the institutions commissioned Pentagram partner, graphic designer Eddie Opara, to create a monograph combining two of Bey's black-and-white photo series: The Birmingham Project (2012), which commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama; and Night Coming Tenderly, Black (2017), a series reimagining a journey on the Underground Railroad to freedom from slavery.

The first is portraiture, the second landscapes; but both depict African American history through an emotive, narrative lens. Eddie and his team saw the contrasts and similarities between the series as drivers for their creative approach to the book, titled Two American Projects. Keen to champion the work, the designers utilise their role as visual communicators to reflect its stories and enhance its messages.

“At first we thought and felt there was a strong contrast between the two bodies of work that we could emphasise by splitting the book in half,” Eddie tells It's Nice That, explaining how they initially planned to print one series on black paper and the other on white, meeting in the middle. “But we also understood that the qualities of the projects strongly represented the Black experience, and they exist in conversation with one another. There needed to be a balance between the contemporary edge; the interplay of type and image, and the gravitas of Dawoud Bey’s work.”

So the final book places both projects on a white background, allowing their different photographic approaches to be presented and compared to one another in one coherent platform. That being said, Eddie and senior designer Raoul Gottschling used typography and subtle design devices to reflect the differences in the work, as well as the gravitas Eddie speaks of, adding a “poetic sensibility... to show the importance of bringing the historical moment into the contemporary”.


Eddie Opara / Pentagram: Dawoud Bey, Two American Projects for SFMoma

“The significance of juxtaposition is central to how typography works throughout the book,” Eddie continues. “It echoes the contrasts in the series and suggests a delimitation played out through the composition between two worlds, yet segues through both worlds. The visual jutting is also there to emphasise words and phrases, indicating motion and shifts in time and perspective while also creating tension within the space of the page.” He gives the example of the table of contents, which is “normally ignored” but here, is used as “an opportunity to lay awareness through the juxtaposed-poetic use of type that you will find inside the book,” such is the essay titles and poems peppered throughout for instance. While the layout follows a simple three-column grid, aiming to create a strong but neutral framework for the imagery, it balances titles with imagery staggered salon-style within body copy. In some places, type and imagery is pushed to the “extreme corners of the pages,” says Eddie, “to create more tension”.

The book uses Berlingske Serif by Jonas Hecksher for primary and secondary display; Grotesks Whyte Inktrap by Johannes Breyer, Fabian Harb and Erkin Karamemet for body copy; and LL Bradford by Laurenz Brunner for marginalia and captions.

The Birmingham Project series features portrait diptychs of residents of Birmingham. On one side a child the same age as one of the victims, and on the other side a portrait of an adult around the age the murdered child would have been 50 years on – in their pairing, the work mourns lost lifetimes. In the book, the photos are displayed large-scale, side by side, while Eddie points out one of the ways he used type to enhance the messages of the work. “There are certain times where we had the opportunity to expose the importance of the text to declare more awareness of the messages. In the essay A Familiar Grace by Imani Perry, that is part of The Birmingham Project, he strategically aligned the four young girls who died with their four murderers’ names side by side. To expose what those murderers did to young beautiful children by taking their lives away, and for people to be fully aware of that. Not to hide it inside a body of copy.”

GalleryEddie Opara / Pentagram: Dawoud Bey, Two American Projects for SFMoma

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About the Author

Jenny Brewer

Jenny oversees our editorial output across work, news and features. She was previously It’s Nice That's news editor. Get in touch with any big creative stories, tips, pitches, news and opinions, or questions about all things editorial.

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