Whenever the artist Deana Lawson sees someone she wants to photograph, she feels as though time stops. It has happened to her when traveling through Brooklyn on the A Train, on road trips through the American South, in taxi lines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and outside of the home of a healer in Moore Town, Jamaica. In a conversation with artist Arthur Jafa that appears in Lawson’s Aperture monograph, she describes the significance of these cinematic time ruptures: “I’ve learned that these moments must be linked to my intuition. And I listen to it.”
These encounters have resulted in works like “Eternity” (2017), where Lawson’s fellow subway rider stands in front of a lavender interior with a giant metal radiator, in a pose that echoes Vermeer’s “Girl With the Pearl Earring”; “The Garden” (2015), whose title references Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” where two naked strangers become stand-ins for Adam and Eve in a lush, Congolese Eden; and “Cowboys” (2014), when two men from Georgia emerge on horseback from a deep, dark background, in a photographic take on chiaroscuro that brings to mind Caravaggio.
Many of these large-scale, elaborately staged, and painstakingly posed photographs that star Lawson’s muses are on view in Lawson’s first museum survey at MoMa PS1, which runs until September. Although these works often do not show evidence of their geographic location, they are not placeless. They exist in an artistically constructed and interconnected universe that centers on the divinity of the Black experience. Here, people of the diaspora become, in Lawson’s words, “godlike beings,” who are no longer defined by forced displacement or voluntary distance from Africa—but rather, by their sacred and unshakeable connection to it, and to each other.
The poetry of this connection plays out in recurring details—closed blinds, colored weaves, artificial nails, plastic couch covers, hues of gold, red, and deep brown—and in her subjects’s piercing gaze. In describing her 15-year practice, which is commemorated in a chronological narrative at MoMa PS1, Lawson stated her aim: “I want to capture something that represents the majesty of Black life, a nuanced Black life, one that is by far more complex, deep, beautiful, celebratory, tragic, weird, strange.”
In the span of her career, Lawson has honed a photographic style that already feels as distinct and recognizable as those of the artists she cites as major inspirations, such as Diane Arbus and Carrie Mae Weems. She has also earned substantial accolades from the fine art world; in 2013, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and 7 years later, became the first artist working in the medium of photography to receive the Hugo Boss Prize. An astute observer, crafter, and documentarian of 21st-century Black identity, her work has inevitably permeated popular culture. For fans of the musician Blood Orange, Lawson’s unforgettable photograph of a couple embracing in a bedroom, “Binky and Tony Forever” (2009), simulates synesthesia by conjuring the voice of frontman Dev Hynes, who chose Lawson’s artwork as the cover of his 2016 album, Freetown Sound. The curator and author of The New Black Vanguard, Antwaun Sargent, wrote about the image’s impact for Vice in 2017. The photograph’s power, he said, lay in its radical depiction of “Black love, so infrequently represented, as young, feminine, and free.”
Given her family history, Lawson believes she was destined to become “an artist with a camera.” She was born and raised in Rochester, New York—where her grandmother cleaned the home of George Eastman, the founder of the Kodak Company, which would later employ Lawson’s mother as an administrative assistant for nearly 30 years. The importance of documenting the intimacies of family life was instilled within her by her father, a hobbyist whose photo albums would later form the foundation of her own practice, which also incorporates personal and found imagery. Lawson additionally credits her aunt, Dr. Patricia Bath, in shaping her artistic vision and ambition. Drawing inspiration from her siblings, who were born legally blind, Bath became a pioneering ophthalmologist, who was among the first in the country to perform cornea transplants—allowing her to give the gift of sight to patients as young as two weeks old.
When experiencing Lawson’s exhibition at MoMa PS1, visitors will feel something adjacent to the time-stopping sensation Lawson described to Jafa, when they suddenly find themselves thrust into suspension in her world—which writer Zadie Smith says is “a portal between the everyday and the sacred...that leads us back to ourselves.” The artworks are exhibited in galleries that are warmed by wall-to-wall, burgundy carpet, connecting viewers to the interiors Lawson creates, and the works to one another. Crystals have been placed in the corners of the galleries, which is part of Lawson’s own ritual in setting an intention for her artwork and the way it is received. In examining the narrative arc of Lawson’s own artistic development, the photographs become both bigger in size and more theatrical in their presentation. Peter Eleey, who co-curated Lawson’s museum survey with Eva Respini, drew attention to her use of gold frames—which allude to both the jewelry worn by many of her subjects and the history of the gold trade in West African kingdoms—and spoke about her increasing use of reflective surfaces and materials. Lawson’s various “inventions,” Eleey says, help facilitate one of her overarching aims: “to create a space in which we see ourselves seeing.”
A look inside Deana Lawson’s exhibition at MoMA PS1. Images courtesy MoMA PS1. Photographs by Steven Paneccasio.
These meta feedback loops, which loom in conjunction with Lawson’s refusal to explain which elements of her artworks are staged, call into question our problematic association of photography with fact, and the very nature of what we “know”—or assume—to be true. Lawson’s use of the medium subverts the long-standing role the camera has played in propagating white supremacist ideology, both historically and in the present. In creating works that highlight our active consumption of her images in the exhibition space, Lawson beckons us to dismantle the distorted framework of our own vantage points.
“Her work invites us into a range of considerations about our own relation to these subjects and Black life, and to contend with what we bring to the picture that is being shown to us,” Eleey says. The crucial question to ask in experiencing Lawson’s work is not only “What is real?” versus “What is constructed?,” but also “What does it mean to decolonize a gaze?” In facilitating these reflections, Lawson reveals herself to be rather like her aunt. Lawson, too, has the power to make things that are typically unseen—such as beauty, bias, and beyond—visible to the blind.