American photographer Deana Lawson details a rich and layered history of Black life in her return to MoMA PS1 in New York City
Deana Lawson, an archivist of black mythology
For close to two decades, Deana Lawson (b. 1979, Rochester, NY) has distinguished herself as one of the foremost archivists of black mythology. The celebrated photographer has refined an exceptionally unique vision immediately recognisable as her expansive narrative arc which documents and challenges conventional representations of Black life through photography.
Through a selection of more than 50 works from 2004 to the present, Deana Lawson features the full range of the artist’s career to date and is Lawson’s first comprehensive survey at MoMA PS1, including photographs featured in PS1’s past annual exhibition series Greater New York (2010, 2015) and New Photography (2011).
Over the course of her prolific career, Lawson has taken portraits of strangers so intimately in tune with the aura of the subject and the vitality of the living thing that sits within it. Be it the striking nude bodies in Sharon (2007) or Axis (2018); the intergenerational pairings of Barrington and Father (2021); or couples embraced as in Binky and Tony Forever (2009); Lawson’s photographic storytelling presents a studied characterisation of Black bodies and the realities that surround them.
Lineage of Black portraiture
The daughter of a photography hobbyist and an administrative assistant at the office of George Eastman, founder of Kodak Company, the trajectory of the Rochester-native appears almost fated. Before her mother’s 39 years in Eastman’s offices, Lawson’s grandmother worked as a domestic housekeeper for George Eastman at the turn of the century.
Notably, at this time, the most photographed nineteenth century American would have been abolitionist Frederick Douglass, a renowned activist who found refuge in Rochester, New York after escaping slavery in Maryland. Douglass’ advocacy for emancipation and civil rights would see him sit for 160 photographic portraits throughout his life.
He used his agency as a sitter to create a novel image of his humanity that challenged the damaging caricatures of blackness that typified nineteenth century depictions of African Americans. Douglass rarely smiled, portraying a stately and dignified Black aesthetic that, over a century later, would be used as a reference for artists such as Lawson.
Chief, Thai and Sons of Cush
Examining Chief (2019), for example, its subject’s intent gaze, adorned in gold accessories, atop a sofa so worn it holds the contours of past occupants. While this scene, with its stained walls and aged curtains, doesn’t immediately imply conditions of great wealth, Lawson, as she is known to do, maintains the dignity of her subject based solely on the heritage of his blackness.
Taken in the Ashanti region of Ghana, the subject’s gold headpiece and jewellery recall the region’s gold production and the history of its pillaging. Like Thai (2009) and Sons of Cush (2016), the sitter inherits, along with their blackness, a legacy – of colonialism, of substance abuse, of erasure – thrust upon them by forces resembling those Douglass fought against. Despite this, each subject sits proudly in their frame (cased in gold in some instances) preserving this canon of transgressive Black photographic portraiture.
Historically, portraiture has sought to use one’s surroundings to glean a subject’s profession and hobbies or demarcate status and state of mind. Lawson unsettles this tradition in order to deliver onto those like her a fair lineage, unmolested by the pains of what exists outside the image.
Assemblage, piecing together ‘Lawsonland’
Zadie Smith muses, «Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen». Lawson reclaims the majesty of black existence, weaving an intricate narrative of individuals that resemble those she grew up with.
Well-known for the air of mystery behind her images, which give away very little as to what has been constructed from the imaginary and what exists in reality, ‘Lawsonland’ captures a potent black experience, «one that is by far more complex, deep, beautiful, celebratory, tragic, weird, strange» according to its author.
Trailing through the exhibit, the multiplicity of Lawson’s photographic languages act as a solid foundation for what one can only describe as an in-depth mythical world building. Through staged tableau, appropriated pictures and borrowed images, she is able to construct a true examination of the ontological framework of black American life displayed nostalgically like a family album.
Assemblage (2021), one of Lawson’s more recent works being exhibited which began as an image board in the artist’s studio, best presents this photographic style likely inherited from her father who was the designated photographer at family events.
It is structured as more of an expansive family album for the viewer to perceive across two walls, peppered with a web of simultaneously singular and interconnected images drawn from library archives, friends, and neighbours – «everything is all mixed up and related».
Lawson tells Carmen Winant, perhaps a subtle hint at her uncharacteristic inclusion of an image of herself in the work. Somewhere, not immediately recognisable to her audience, lies an image of Lawson’s younger self, submerged in this sweeping tapestry but also acutely exceptional as most of her sitters usually are.
Lawson as Cultural Anthropologist
As the late American musician and critic Greg Tate wrote of Lawson’s work, what you see is «photographer as cultural anthropologist but also as cultural vivisectionist and forensic curator». Moving through MoMA PS1’s exhibition of Lawson’s work, the artist as excavator and collector of stories, bodies, objects and more, becomes glaringly obvious.
On this rare occasion, the expanse of Lawson’s interconnected narratives is put on display for viewers to piece together the corporeal dimensions that make up Lawson’s careful curation of black selfhood.
Like any great collection, Lawson’s oeuvre is made up of varied pieces. Although she maintains that her photographs operate individually from image to image – as opposed to the grander scale of a series – her penchant for visual leitmotifs and repeated symbols across a wide-ranging documentation of spaces and cultures say otherwise.
These scenes and sitters span far and wide – from New York to Haiti, Ghana to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Los Angeles to Jamaica – consciously mapping the rich narratives of the Black diaspora from the shores of the African continent to the regions of dispersal. Lawson’s work captures the magic of the quotidian moment, injecting majesty into a historically tragic representation, achieved primarily because she maintains a fine line between reality and artifice.
«People are creative, godlike beings. I don’t feel like we carry ourselves like that all the time, or that we know how miraculous we are. When I speak of potential, teasing out this incredible, powerful person in front of me, I am trying to locate the magnificent and have it come through in the picture». Lawson tells artist Arthur Jafa. For the young Black child, unmarred by the realities of Black existence, still questioning the absence of his likeness in fairy tales and history books, this kind of Black portraiture offers redemption.
Powers of sight
In 2019, Lawson’s photograph Nation (2017) joined the MoMA collection. Like many of her portraits, the subjects’ unwavering outward-facing gaze challenges the audience to either lower one’s eyes in submission to these «godlike beings» or to hold steady, a courtesy not always given to Black folk in the history of their interaction with the Western world.
On articulating Black experience in her work, Lawson tells senior curator Roxana Marcoci, «the inspiration came from invisibility or lack of seeing the presence of the brown body». Perhaps this is the reason Lawson so intently pursues her desired subjects, which by now one can likely guess are only Black individuals. The artist has a feeling of «ultimate purpose» , she says, that not only drives her persistence but also leads to the enviable intuition that navigates her gifted eye.
Today, Nation is joined by several of Lawson’s other works, exhibited in burgundy carpeted rooms, transporting viewers to the domestic interiors that Lawson creates. Crystals dot the corners of the galleries as part of Lawson’s personal ritual which seeks to set an intention for her artwork and the way it is received.
Peter Eleey and Eva Respini have co-curated Lawson’s museum survey, paying close attention to the exhibit’s visual experience beyond the image. As previously mentioned, Lawson’s symbolic gold frames – alluding to both the jewellery that many of her subjects wear as well as the history of the gold trade in West Africa – are present alongside other reflective surfaces and materials.
Born 1979, Deana Lawson received an MFA from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004 and currently lives and works in New York. The Rochester-born artist and photographer is primarily concerned with themes of family, intimacy, sexuality and Black aesthetics. Lawson’s work draws on various photographic languages to examine personal and social histories of Black life.