Profile: Deana Lawson(1979)

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Deana Lawson is an American artist, educator and photographer, based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work revolves primarily around issues of intimacy, family, spirituality, sexuality, and Black aesthetics.

Early Life

Lawson has been praised for her ability to communicate the nuances of African American experiences in relation to issues of social, political, and economic factors. She has work held in the International Center for Photography collections. Her photographs have been exhibited in a number of museums and galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Lawson credits her interest in taking photographs to African American photographers like Carrie Mae Weems and Renee Cox. During her undergraduate years, Lawson was shocked at the lack of scholarship surrounding photographers of color. This led her to learn more about black artists, like Lorna Simpson, whose work inspired her to pursue photography as a medium: “Just to have that model–to realize that not only did I like to make pictures but that I could actually do this, you know, was absolutely important to reaffirm myself as an artist”.

Lawson’s highly formalist photographs are distinguishable by their meticulous staging, intimate composition, and attention to black cultural symbols. Her photos are highly staged, with an emphasis on “the strangely potent components of black interiors.” While referring to her subjects as “family,” her models are more often than not strangers she meets randomly in public spaces. In an artist statement, Lawson writes: “My work negotiates a knowledge of selfhood through a profoundly corporeal dimension; the photographs speaking to the ways that sexuality, violence, family, and social status may be written, sometimes literally, upon the body.”

In 2011, The New Yorker’s Jessie Wender described Lawson’s portraits as “intimate and unexpected.”  In Wender’s interview with Lawson, the photographer discussed her inspirations, including “vintage nudes, Sun Ra, Nostrand Ave., sexy mothers, juke joints, cousins, leather bound family albums, gnarled wigs, Dana Lawson [her sister], the color purple, The Grizzly Man, M.J., oval portraits, Arthur Jafa, thrift shops, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, acrylic nails, weaves on pavement, Aaron Gilbert [her former husband], the A train, Tell My Horse, typewriters, Notorious B.I.G., fried fish, and lace curtains”. Formally, Lawson said, “Formally the images are unified by a clear directorial voice. The subject’s pose, lighting, and environment are all carefully considered.”

Lawson has stated that her most challenging or successful work is The Garden, which references the Eden scene in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. In 2014 Lawson traveled to Congo to look for references for her vision of Eden, and this journey led her to the small village called Gemena, which became the setting for The Garden.

While many of Lawson’s photographs are taken in New York, she has also photographed subjects in Louisiana, Haiti, Jamaica, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has expressed the hope that through travel, her work can reflect the ways in which black culture is not confined by physical boundaries.

In November 2015, Lawson was commissioned by Time to photograph survivors and the victims’ families of the Charleston church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina.

In 2016, Lawson’s photograph, Binky & Tony Forever, was used as the cover art for Freetown Sound, the third album by Dev Hynes for Blood Orange. The photograph is set in Lawson’s bedroom and depicts young love, with an emphasis on the female figure—”the female gaze, and her space, and her love,” in Lawson’s words.

Lawson’s large scale photography, Ring Bearer  (2016) was featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

The movie Queen & Slim (2019) was inspired by Lawson’s photography, in capturing an intimate portrayal of black experience and the stylized home interiors. In 2019, Lawson photographed Melina Matsoukas, the director of the film

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