Carlos Museum opens 'A Very Incomplete Self-Portrait: Tom Dorsey's Chicago Portfolio'
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Carlos Museum opens 'A Very Incomplete Self-Portrait: Tom Dorsey's Chicago Portfolio'
Tom Dorsey, A Very Incomplete Self-Portrait, Fol. 3. 1971. Gelatin silver prints mounted to archival board. 2022.006.004A/B. © Tom Dorsey. Courtesy Michael C. Carlos Museum, Emory University.

ATLANTA, GA.- A Very Incomplete Self-Portrait, on view from February 18 to July 16, 2023, presents never-before-exhibited works by celebrated photographer Thomas Dorsey. Widely known for his intimate portraits of African American families in their homes in Chicago and Atlanta, Dorsey also photographed the streets, houses, and buildings of his childhood neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side. This portfolio of black and white photographs, taken while Dorsey was enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, reveals the barren infrastructure of an underserved community and the resilience and stark beauty that can be discovered amidst bleak circumstances.

Place deeply informed Dorsey’s self-identity but did not define him. As a child, he experienced isolation and felt different from his peers, which he attributes in part to a head injury sustained during his youth. He became increasingly engrossed in the mechanics of how things work— building model airplanes in grade school, later modifying cars and motorcycles and teaching himself to write music. The multiple and complex processes of photography suited Dorsey, as did its documentary potential.

Undertaking this project marked an effort to document the pervading physical and spiritual coldness that he felt during childhood. He remarks, “I did not grow up understanding my young life or feel like I was understood by those around me, which left me confused. The photographs were my attempt, at that point, to save, in a visual form, my feelings for interpretation later in life.” The photographs in A Very Incomplete Self-Portrait are deeply personal; for Dorsey, they are preserved memories and emotions that he revisited, re- interpreted, and made useful over time. They are also extraordinary historical documents of 1971 Chicago. In 2022, the artist gifted the portfolio to the Carlos Museum with the hope that others might find the images useful.

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