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The World Through the Lens of Deana Lawson

Written by Carissa Salazar

When it comes to talking about certain figures in the art world, it’s difficult to say what has not already been said about them. Some people feel like obelisks emerged from the ground themselves, powerful entities loved by many and the pillar of an idea or movement. Everyone knows who they are, their work, and many are inspired to make in their like. That’s Deana Lawson. Everything is connected to Deana Lawson.

You might have seen a Deana Lawson photograph before without knowing it was a Deana Lawson photograph. I assure you, if you’ve ever seen one online or in print, it’s hard to forget. The first time I’ve seen a Deana Lawson piece was through an album cover. In 2016, Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange) released his third album, Freetown Sound, represented through one of the most memorable album art I’ve seen. It was a haunting scene of yellow tones and dark bodies, intertwined and staring directly into the camera. The satin of the bedsheets glow in the artificial light, and the intimate act of “walking in” can be felt by the viewer. As if we are caught stepping into the subject’s lives, we get a sense of tenderness, voyeur, and an unmistakable feeling of purposeful staged poses. The mix between real and performance gives an otherworldly effect on the photograph, with your mind lulling back and forth between the two. It was something I hadn’t seen before. A whole new world of photography.

At that time I knew little about photography and photographers. I was only a college student with other things on my plate, but I was still a Blood Orange stan. So the album cover would stick with me through songs like “Best to You”, “Augustine”, and “With Him.” Devonte’s music, like Deana Lawson’s photographs, was hard to categorize. I just identified the emotions I have when consuming their art. The feeling of spirituality, being taken to another place, and the love for being in likeness with your ancestors. As a non-Black consumer, my experiences are different than my Black counterparts. I will never fully understand the powerful words directed to the Black experience, or the imagery of “Black” scenes that will never be mine, but I know for certain that their art is simply one of beauty and a mirror of their deep inner worlds and viewership of the Black body.

Deana Lawson, Mama Goma, 2014; from Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph

In this photograph titled, “Mama Goma” the intense gaze of the pregnant female subject seeps through the screen. Like most of her photographs, there is an intermixing of intimate and staged elements. Lawson’s backgrounds are usually intimate, being the actual living spaces of her subjects, there are small details that give the viewer more understanding about location, tradition, and family history. You can feel the rural setting through the concrete floors, lace curtains, and rattan furniture choices in this photo. However, Lawson’s subjects are often posing in romantic ways. In this case, the use of costume is highlighted through the bright baby blue satin dress, purposely cut out to bring attention to the subject’s pregnant midsection. She is holding her palms face up, as if in prayer, or spiritual pose. This is where Lawson’s storytelling shines. In her photography, there is a recurring theme of intent and purposeful framing. This pregnant woman is almost portrayed as a goddess with the most powerful ability: childbirth. Maternity is presented as something to be revered, a connection between generations and ancestral history. Without the mother, there will be no continuation of life, tradition, or stories. The subject ties back into the background as a woman is also the caretaker of her home, and the feeling of domesticity is reiterated in the scene. Though living life and making children seems mundane and expected of many women, there is so much to be celebrated about motherhood and homemaking. Deana Lawson’s choice of the color and texture of the dress highlights this, as it is the brightest part of the photograph.

Deana Lawson, Sons of a Cush, 2016 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

While the subjects change and are thousands of miles away from the last, there is always a recurring theme of history and history-making in Lawson’s work. In Sons of a Cush, instead of highlighting motherhood, Deana frames a tattooed Black man with his child in a domestic American scene. Some specificities are hard to ignore about the photo: the photographs of family members, the covered window on the door for privacy, and the arm of someone outside of the frame wearing gold chains and holding a wad of cash. There are many narratives put into a Deana Lawson piece, and they are all deliberate. From my interpretation, I see the power of Black fatherhood and the importance of family history. This tells me of the culture and effects of the last generation that will be passed on to the next, whether it is wisdom or struggle, the stories of family will always live on. The gaze of the father pierces into you, though you are just a spectator in passing of a moment that is immortalized, his legacy would live on with his child.

In that same idea, I feel that Lawson’s work itself is becoming a legacy. Devonte Hynes and Lawson didn’t know each other personally, but became connected when Hynes reached out to her to ask if he could use her photo, “Binky & Tony Forever.” Lawson told Fader, “We didn’t know each other, and it was totally based on the work. I thought he was so prolific and the music was just so beautiful. I hope I don’t misquote him but he said that when he was making the album, he often looked at art. One of the works that he was looking at during the process throughout the past year was my work and contact sheet. He said that he wanted to work together and there's one image in particular that he kept coming back to, and that was ‘Binky & Tony.’”

I kept coming back to this interview because it’s amazing how Deana Lawson praises Dev Hynes with such high regard when Dev himself was in part inspired by Lawson’s work in making Freetown Sound. After listening to Blood Orange’s music for a long time, these artists are connected because they share a similar mission and way of seeing. It didn’t take me long to find Deana Lawson’s other work and fall in love. There is something prolific about showcasing Black bodies and Black experiences the way that Deana photographs and Dev makes music… and yet there are even more creatives to add to Lawson’s list of influences.


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