Deana Lawson joins Light Work for her residency to scan and print large-scale exhibition and portfolio prints, using our Imacon scanners and Epson 9800 printers. She has also taken advantage of her time and new location to connect with Syracuse subjects for portrait shoots that expands on her series involving individuals and families photographed in their homes or the studio. Her work stems from an interest in the “realness” of the family snapshot, but her large-format scale brings a certain grandeur and intensity of detail to the snapshot aesthetic, allowing the viewer a close proximity to comprehending a subject’s connection to their external and internal worlds, i.e., family, home, and identity. Lawson positions family members within their home and community as sites ripe with information and self-awareness, allowing psychological explorations of the “lived moment” recorded by her camera.
Lawson holds an MFA in Photography from Rhode Island School of Design, and has received numerous awards, such as fellowships with the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) and The Photography Institute at Columbia University. Her work has received national recognition, and is exhibited widely, at venues like The Print Center in Philadelphia, PA, and the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NY.
Since taking her first photographs, Deana Lawson has wanted to discover a visual poetics with women as its focal point. In the search for this visual language, she has interacted in a predominately female domestic space, which influenced her choice of subject matter for her current work.
Lawson considers the subjects in this series to be “ordinary” people, including strangers who she met at church or the local supermarket and her own family members. While Lawson’s early photographs may have pictured ordinary people in some mutually observed sense of the word, the inhabitants of her newest work test the boundaries of words like normal, everyday, and ordinary. Like Diane Arbus, Lawson is attracted to the wrong images—the unconventional portrait of the “normal” or the conventional portrait of the fringe or subcultural figure.
Mixing craftily staged works with snapshots, Lawson’s images are based upon fragmentary and invented truths inspired by direct observation and involvement with peoples’ lives. Lawson’s photographs play on our moral nodes beyond gender and the body, incorporating the influence of women like Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson, who consciously intertwine conceptual strategies within seemingly straight photography. Like other female photographers of a generation not so far removed from now—including Katy Grannan and Rineke Dijkstra—Lawson also traffics in the voyeuristic. She too is a child of Cindy Sherman’s conceptualist portraiture and Nan Goldin’s raw, intimate documentary images.
So packed with intention, Lawson seems to want it all, there in the image alone. We are never really sure if the picture is telling a story, a constructed fiction, or acting as a document of some reality, or possibly both at the same time. This ambiguity often leads to some uncomfortable, open questions. We never do find out who these people are, as much as Lawson’s psychological portraits make us want to know. Her pictures end up provoking more questions than they answer.
In the ironically named Family Portrait, a woman sits uncomfortably, inexplicably naked on the edge of the couch as a man—possibly her husband or partner—rests assuredly next to her. Their demon child, with his eyes cut up sharply at the camera, sits below them on the floor, closest to his father, and his gaze, like his parents’, is fixed upon us. However, their eyes reveal nothing of the truth of this situation, and Lawson’s background and the subjects’ interiors are likewise relentlessly empty of answers.
The woman’s nakedness in Family Portrait is eerie because of the juxtaposition with clothed others. In Untitled the woman is also nude, and her nudity sets her up as one in a long line of artistic portraits that invoke the erotic, which may make us uncomfortable for an entirely different set of reasons. We see her body from behind as her face turns to greet us. But her look is flippant, as if she could care very little for her viewer, even if her look is also one of slight flirtation. Yet the women Lawson captures at their most erotic and sexual moments are simultaneously shown as humans who have intimately known great personal tragedy and loss. The funeral portrait of Adorah broadens and transforms the way we see the other images in this series by collapsing and heightening the themes of birth and death in one image.
The Reception features a wisp of a woman who appears to be propped up by a man. They are dressed for an occasion, he with suit and tie and a boutonnière and she in gold with her hair adorned by a crown of flowers. In the background is a portrait of an older woman posing for her own portrait prior to the scene at the heart of the picture. The white walls and wooden door are bare save for this picture. Though their faces portray happiness together—we stare harder and wonder. She is older than he. We cannot tell if they are a couple or if they are they related in another way.
Shirley stands in front of a middle class setting. An older woman, maybe in her 60s, she is dressed in short grey heels, black pants, and a white shirt. Although she wears a wedding ring, she appears alone, in front of the fireplace with flowers on one side and a plant on the other. Of Lawson’s portraits displayed here, she is the straight shooter, a portrait of a woman that might have been commissioned by the sitter and not staged by the artist. But like those other pictures, the image walks a fine line, and we may be wrong.
It seems that something is not right in the work of Deana Lawson. Not, “not right,” as in the obviously wrong. But, it just ain’t right, and that is what makes it so compelling.
Deana Lawson lives and works in New York City. She was a Light Work Artist-in-Residence in March 2008. Her work can be seen at www.deanalawson.com.
Franklin Sirmans is the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Menil Collection, Houston, TX.
“We have, each of us, a life story, an inner narrative whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives. It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative’ and that this narrative is us, our identities.” —Oliver Sacks 1
Deana Lawson’s color photographic portraits issue from deep feelings of solidarity. She has embarked on a journey of reckoning, seeking images that are formal, posed, intimate, and respectful. Her images do not shy away from tensions between the sacred and the profane. Each photograph marks an occasion between the observer and the observed, mapping proximities and distances—interior scenes where matters of the heart, desire, the family, mothering, identity, and sexuality are witnessed and declared. Deana has been exploring both sides of the street. She has been imaging the emotional and experiential thin lines and broad strokes that reveal how we might, in a complex social terrain, photograph and speak a personal truth to power.
Binky and Tony, Barbara, the Coulson family, Thai, Shirley, and many more are part of the collective portrait that Deana Lawson is building. It grows by attraction, meetings with strangers who are sometimes on the way to becoming friends, by way of church or clubs with names like Badabing, and within the geography of her daily experience. This is a gathering of voices, images, and souls rendered with the precision of the camera and the trained alertness of a movie director, seeking the spontaneous from a constructed and artificial scene. Evidence cohabits with fiction and fiction with fact. Through her images, Deana has brought to us the individuals (along with the events and details that complicate being photographed) and the relationships of understanding that can be gleaned from this effort.
There are invisible economies in Deana’s practice and behaviors of imaging. She talks long hours with her subjects, elicits their cooperation or performance of themselves, and writes her stories and theirs in journal entries. As the field operative and photographer, she lugs her large format camera to their locale, a penance and endurance test itself. Then she breathes as much life back into the pictures as her skill can conjure. She reads, studies, and listens carefully to the music of life in the neighborhood. Disarmingly polite, educated, almost Sunday school clean, with a bright smile and eyes, and smartly put together, Deana is transparent and undercover at once. No small feat.
The presence of color, skin, bodies, injuries, scars, clothes or the lack of them, hair, make-up, decors, domestic environments, strip clubs, and funeral parlors accumulate. Selected appropriated images are added to the ones imagined and captured. A different collective and individual portrait of the contemporary African American woman begins the arduous path towards recognition.
It is not easy to engage and challenge the stereotypes of roles, ethnicity, and blackness without being challenged oneself. The world, when it is closely seen, deeply felt, and in constant adjustment for nuance, grace, and visible truth, requires that we too adjust our cultural compass, our blindness, and habitual views. The skills contemporary artists use to decode and recode the representations that populate our “necessary illusions” find useful direction in Deana’s work. The personal is more than ever political, and the site of individual consciousness contests the image worlds and systems in which we find ourselves situated.
Deana’s pictures interpret and present an imaginary cultural genome. She entertains the limits of photography’s genres and critically understands media images as fabrications with a claim on our identities. She accepts the challenge to make visually elegant yet emotionally disturbing images, without shame or deception. She makes self-referential portraits with an intensity and calm, while rupturing the codes of acceptable (photographic) behavior. The viewer is simultaneously seduced and brought into close range with the events of life and death, family bonds, women and men seen in familiar, private or public, yet uncanny surroundings. The macabre and the joyous are at home side by side. Within and outside the familiar and the visible, Deana brings her vision of an alternative truth to our eyes.
1. Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. (London: Duckworth, 1985), p. 105.
Robert Blake is an artist using photography, text, sound, and video in installations. Robert writes on contemporary art and teaches internationally. He is chair emeritus of the General Studies Program at the ICP and director of special projects at 601artspace.org in New York.