When Deana Lawson was growing up, her dad was the family photographer. Once, when she and her twin Dana were nine years old, they helped their mother, Gladys, take pictures for a calendar–a gift for their dad. As a child, she was surrounded by pictures of her mom and aunts at cookouts and celebrations. Family photos, like those she loved as a kid, would later help form the foundation for Deana Lawson’s life in photography.
Deana Lawson, edited by Peter Eleey and Eva Respini and published by Mack Books, spans fifteen years of the artist’s career, coinciding with the first comprehensive museum survey exhibition of her work, running through February 27th, 2022 at ICA/Boston before traveling to MoMA PS1 in New York the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. The first scholarly publication devoted to Lawson’s work, the book includes her staged portraits; her collaged installations, known as “assemblages”); essays by Eva Respini and Peter Eleey, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Greg Tate, Tina Campt, and Alexander Nemerov; and a conversation between Lawson and the artist, author, and curator Deborah Willis. It also includes personal photographs from Lawson’s family, the portrait of her mother among them.
The idea of the family album runs throughout Lawson’s work. Her pictures are staged; often, her collaborators are indeed related, but not always. It’s impossible to differentiate the “real life” couples and families from the “fictional ones” without being told, and in the end, it doesn’t matter. The intimacy and familiarity feel tangibly real regardless. In his essay, Greg Tate writes, “Real Black Life is what we’re looking at in Lawson’s pictures.” Framed family photographs have become a leitmotif in the artist’s work, as have drawn curtains, creating a sense of security and protection. When we look at a Lawson photograph, we’re entering a space as private and sacred as the family home.
Often, these homes contain layers of historical and art historical significance, stories of love, and traces of trauma. In the case of Nation, one of Lawson’s most famous pictures, she’s photographed two men, one wearing a gold dental device that forces his mouth open. In the upper-righthand corner, you’ll find another picture: a Google image of George Washington’s dentures, made of hippopotamus ivory, brass, and human teeth, the latter taken from enslaved people. In Lawson’s own words, the photograph “conjures the ghosts of America’s past.” It captures not only the scars of the past but the wounds of the present, still gaping and raw.
Lawson regularly comes across her models by chance. As we learn in the book, she met one woman and her daughter at church in Rochester; another family she encountered on Malcolm X Boulevard in Brooklyn. Once, she convinced a taxi driver to pose for her; another time, she saw two girls and their mom emerge from the subway stairs and knew she had to photograph them.
When working on the book, Lawson rediscovered some of her father’s old family albums. “It was really interesting to look at his pictures of the family and see how much I am channeling certain photographs without knowing it, not realizing how much the foundation of my family has played a key role in who I’m drawn to as subjects,” she tells Deborah Willis. “Growing up in Rochester, a large and inter-connected family was central to my life. My mother, her sisters and cousins were all very complicated, gorgeous, and heartbreaking women.”
In Coulson Family, an image created in 2008, we find a mother and her two children at the Christmas tree. On top of the television are family pictures, framed and displayed. Behind them, the walls are as blue as the sky, the curtains pulled closed to create their own private sanctuary.
Deana Lawson, the first scholarly publication and extensive survey on the artist, is available now through Mack Books. Get your copy here. The coinciding exhibition will be on view at ICA/ Boston through February of next year. Feature Shoot, in collaboration with Mack Books, will be giving away three copies of the book to select subscribers to our premium newsletter. If you’d like to be eligible for this and upcoming book giveaways by Feature Shoot, subscribe here.