Photographer Deana Lawson was born in 1979 in Rochester, New York. Her work faithfully dissects the stereotypes of black aesthetics and the often overlooked nuances within the African American experience. Speaking on the influences and inspirations to her body of work Lawson cites, ‘Vintage nudes, Sun Ra, Nostrand Ave., sexy mothers, juke joints, cousins, leather bound family albums, gnarled wigs, Dana Lawson, purple, The Grizzly Man, M.J., oval portraits, Arthur Jaffa, thrift shops, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, acrylic nails, weaves on pavement, Aaron Gilbert, the A train, Tell My Horse, typewriters, Notorious B.I.G., fried fish, and lace curtains.’ The hackneyed ‘black is beautiful’ campaign is met with an overhaul; Lawson’s works are not solely expressions of physicality, of the black naked body, but also the encompassing sphere of issues; of sexuality, gender, intimacy and spirituality.
Lawson’s accumulated repertoire as a photographer, artist and educator focuses on the performance of the individual; the intimacy within a singular moment, a snapshot into a mind and a life, where a stranger becomes ‘family’. The portraits take ownership of the naked body and the naked being; the person within the body, the workings of the soul and the mind, their fragility and their strength. Her photographs are a stark, and anything but brazen spotlight on an individual, requiring a mutual respect and understanding between photographer and muse, ‘I am always honoured and appreciative to be let in. I understand it is a privilege.’
Lawson takes meticulous consideration of the variables affecting her photographs and is known to sketch scenes out on paper before working with the camera. The subjects pose, the lighting, the environment – they all are aids in telling a story, the photograph being the final ‘visual testimony’. Lawson’s photographs thus leave us questioning whether they conform to the bracket of candid portraiture, or rather to a demonstration of carefully constructed intimacy.
A mother herself, Lawson depicts the naked woman in varying stages of motherhood – the glimpse of a swollen pregnant bump, the mother naked with clothed partner and child, the grandmother grieving. Yet it is up to the viewer to decide: are Lawson’s mise-en-scenes reflections of herself, her muses or a collection of motifs that society ascribes to blackness?
Lawson received her B.F.A, in 2001 in Photography from Pennsylvania State University, and her M.F.A. in Photography from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004. Her photographs have been exhibited in museums and galleries all over the world, with an extensive collection in the United States : the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.
Lawson has taught at California Institute of the Arts, International Center for Photography, California College of the Arts, and Rhode Island School of Design and as of 2012, is Assistant Professor of Photography at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey.[She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.
More to read