The American photographer Deana Lawson (1979) has been acclaimed as one of the most compelling photographers of her generation. In her work, which has been compared to that of Diane Arbus, Jeff Wall and Carrie Mae Weems, Lawson seeks to express the personal power of her models. Over the last ten years she has developed a visionary language with which to describe identity through intimate portraiture in domestic settings: striking accounts of the rituals and ceremonies that strengthen this identity, surrounding a naked or semi-clad central figure who meets the viewer with a gaze so intense that it is the spectator, not the sitter, who feels exposed.
Lawson’s photography has often been described as ‘highly staged’, not because the work has a staged feel but because no detail is left to chance. Outfits, objects, accessories and interiors are deliberately combined to create a theatrical scene with one or two people at its centre. Formal elements like lighting and composition are employed to strengthen the sense of power and freedom through the personal, intimate spaces in which they find themselves.
Deana Lawson’s work concentrates on the experience of black people in the entire diaspora, across a variety of American states, the Caribbean, and Africa. According to Megan Steinman, the curator of Lawson’s exhibition in The Underground Museum, Lawson researches into what the diaspora can mean, not just in historical but also in material and emotional terms: ‘[Her works] are really meant to represent the breadth and depth of the diaspora, and what could be defined as a black universal experience, if one could even try to think about that.’
Lawson often photographs people from lower socio-economic groups where, she says, she recognizes the settings she herself grew up in. She finds her models in the street, on public transport, in beauty salons, in nightclubs, in churches and in fast food restaurants. She portrays them using a medium-format or large-format camera, capturing their dignity and grandeur in a way that lifts her subjects above their daily circumstances.
‘Deana Lawson’s people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look: Brownsville, Kingston, Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa. Typically, she photographs her subjects in cramped domestic spaces, yet they rarely look either vulnerable or confined. 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.’ – Zadie Smith
The work Eternity (2017) is a good example. A woman wearing sequinned lingerie poses in such a way that her buttocks and breasts demand your attention. Her glamorous clothing and demeanour are in striking contrast with the setting in which she stands, sharing space with a sagging flower-print sofa, a radiator, and an electric space heater. The gilded curlicues of a winged-horse clock adorn the pale mauve wall, echoing the undulating curves of the woman’s body. ‘Eternity evokes images of Sara Baartman, a South African woman put on display in Great Britain in the 19th century as a curiosity because of her large buttocks. The image simultaneously reckons with this exploitative and dehumanizing history and reclaims black beauty in the face of predominant, Caucasian beauty standards,’ wrote the art critic Sharon Mizota in the LA Times. On the one hand the work presents a stereotype, as do many of Lawson’s other portraits – the couple in love, the single parent fallen on hard times, the heroic mother – but Lawson always lifts her subjects above these stereotypes, and does not portray black people as victims, social problems or exotics.
“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,” says Lawson in an interview with Arthur Jafa in Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph (2018).
Deana Lawson grew up in Rochester, upstate New York. She seemed destined for a career in photography: her grandmother was a housekeeper for George Eastman, Kodak’s founder, her mother also worked at Kodak, and her father worked at Xerox. Moreover, her father never missed an opportunity to take photographs of his family. Lawson has said that she felt it was her destiny to become an artist with a camera. Her work has been widely exhibited, including by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, MoMA, MoMA PS1, the Hélène Bailly Gallery in Paris, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the KIT Museum in Dusseldorf, the Artists Space in New York, the Print Center in Philadelphia, the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, and The Underground Museum in Los Angeles.
In 2013 she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship that enabled her to travel to Jamaica, Haiti and West Africa and take photographs there. In 2017 she took part in the Whitney Biennial, an event with a long history of exhibiting the most promising and influential of new artists. The 2018 exhibition Planes, held in The Underground Museum, forms the basis for this exhibition in Huis Marseille – her first large solo exhibition in Europe.