Deana Lawson’s Exalted Black Subjects

By Nicole-Ann Lobo, Columbia University.
Originally published in the 2019 print edition.

As a linguistic act, place-naming seems to tame spatial ambiguity by exerting a sense of ownership and control over a domain. But still there remain nameless places that transcend spatiotemporal limits, even when alluded to by recognizable settings. In these placesspaces awaiting nomenclaturesocial and political structures draw barriers for action.

American artist Deana Lawson plays with this space in her photographs, which meditate on the ethnopolitical implications of vision and representationof who is seen, how, and on whose terms. Lawson’s oeuvre largely consists of intimate, meticulously posed portraits of Black subjects in seemingly quotidian moments, often in cramped domestic interiors. Take Eternity (2017), a photograph titled after a woman Lawson encountered on the A train after disembarking at Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. In lavender-painted, royal-purple-carpeted surroundings, Eternity poses, her body tilted toward the room’s corner at the photograph’s left frame. The light reflects off her pristine skin, hitting her cheekbones with a soft glimmer. Her shadow reflects off the surrounding wall and radiator, but above all, Eternity’s gaze is transfixing. It captivates the spectator by way of its rawness, its openness and purity contrasting its more colorful surroundings.

Like Eternity, Lawson’s subjects are often naked or in states of half-dress, but they gaze at the camera with an almost unreadable neutrality, a quiet self-containment that connotes profound agency. Understanding Lawson’s art requires a sustained engagement with critical race and diasporic studies in the United States. Lawson attests that her work is “about setting a different standard of values and saying that everyday Black lives, everyday experiences, are beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent.”1 By portraying her subjects in poses and interiors that are at once familiar and distant from white cultural “norms” propagated by pop culture, Lawson’s subjects are self-possessed, simultaneously revealing in dress and concealing any sense of their true identities. In the artist’s words: “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.”2

Lawson might be situated in the art historical canon alongside artists like Cindy Sherman, whose self-posed conceptual portraits riffed on anonymity and female objectification. Similar comparisons might also be drawn to Jack Smith, who fastidiously posed queer subjects in ornate film sets that would take hours to compose. But if Sherman had a feminist message and Smith an LGBTQ-positive one, Lawson is concerned with the intersection of social and representative exclusion. 

In particular, I find that Lawson’s compressed spaces, often emphasized with the use of shadow, exclude the viewer, underscoring both the spectator’s cornering of the subject and their own failure to assimilate into the space elevated by the subject’s regal presence. But if the site of the smooth, scarred, and luminescent Black body provides a starting point for Lawson’s oeuvre’s poignancy, meaning is equally conveyed in the negative space around these bodies, comprised both of meticulously chosen surroundings and cramped architectural space. 

The objects found in these interiors convey more about who Lawson’s subjects are not—rich, upper-class white folk—rather than who they are. Floral patterned fabric couches, taped-over windows, worn floorboards, plastic children’s toys. In contrast to the constitution of an upper-class interior aesthetic—one might imagine details such as throw pillows, cashmere sweaters, and granite countertops, found in photographer Buck Ellison’s backgrounds, as Zadie Smith has pointed out—Larson creates a space readied for the spectator’s own projections onto empty surfaces.3 In other words, the spectator’s presumptions of who these people are and what led to the circumstances of each photograph’s creation, are precisely what Lawson seeks to underscore. 

These projections, though, are only derivative of a lack of cultural representation experienced by what sociologist William Julius Wilson might have attributed to the social “underclass,” a term originally coined by the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal. The underclass consists of those most disenfranchised by a structurally unjust society; they remain something of a myth in the bourgeois imagination. Wilson defined this underclass as “a massive population at the very bottom of the social ladder plagued by poor education and low-paying jobs.”4 

It is precisely this social stratum that Lawson seeks to represent. “When I’m going out to make work,” she has said, “usually I’m choosing people that come from a lower- or working-class situation. Like, I’m choosing people around the neighborhood.”5 Lawson’s work transcends artistic barriers by her personal ethnographic approach, traversing realms of cultural anthropology by the visual investigation of groups underrecognized in the American mainstream. In the words of author Greg Tate, Lawson’s practice “subtly contests the suppression of Black visual epistemologies — as much through absence as presence, withheld information as much as cultural saturation bombing.”6 

Consider Cowboys (2014) for instance, in which two Black cowboys ride horses into the foreground of the frame. The background is entirely black, characterized more by absence than by the presence of constructed space, yet the cowboys are bathed in light. Their gaze does not quite meet the spectator’s and their faces are partially obscured by Western attire—a hat and a bandana, the stereotypical trappings of a cowboy. Nonetheless, they project into a future plane, pioneers of a new land. Zadie Smith describes Lawson’s subjects as “prelapsarian,” paying homage to their wholeness and their innocent strength. “Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling,” Smith wrote. “But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.”7

The staged posing of Lawson’s subjects is a critical component of their “prelapsarian” status. But the fierceness and power that the subjects evoke might also be contrasted with their role in a structurally unjust society that forces such roles: the systemic difficulties that require disenfranchised individuals, members of the underclass, to work twice as hard to stay afloat. 

A comparison to Wayne Lawrence, a photographer who compiled his photographs of minimally-clad visitors to Orchard Beach in his book The Bronx Riviera (2013), here, proves useful to investigate their treatments of subaltern subjects in space. Although Lawrence’s subjects appear more closed off than Lawson’s in their embrace of the camera, they help humanize a public space that had been socially degraded as “the hood beach.” But unlike Lawrence’s photographs of individuals who dominate expansive beach backgrounds that extend beyond the eye’s sight, Lawson’s subjects are cornered into spaces that serve, in a sense, as barriers. Sealed-off space often consumes more of the frame than do the subjects themselves (as in Baby Sleep, one of Lawson’s works from 2009), but Lawson’s subjects remain larger than life, their distance from the viewer a product of spectatorial alienation. It’s not that these subjects are estranged by the politically visible world at large: it’s that the viewer does not belong to the vibrant, enchanted world Lawson creates within the frame. 

The jarring openness and insistent frontality of her subjects’ gazes precludes a sense of their cornering or voyeurism. The viewer is made to feel uncomfortable for lookingpower dynamics in flux. In other words, if Lawson’s powerful Black subjects’ expressions are inscrutable, her compositions reveal the non-neutrality implicit in our own act of looking. And not only do her subjects’ gazes shift the dynamics of who is made vulnerable, but they willfully expand beyond the limited space they occupy. We look at an intimate photograph only to realize we are being looked at, directly scrutinized, almost as an intruder. Lawson plays with this liminal space, the ground between the viewer and the subject, to underscore not just spectatorial discomfort, but the bases of assumption. The result is the creation of a space at once proximal and distant: in moments of intimacy, the viewer is invited into a space and simultaneously excluded from participation, bare in the face of Lawson’s subjects’ piercing stares. 

A line from Jacques Derrida comes to mind in the affirmation of these spaces: “People only exist to the extent they are being filmed.”8 If existence is hardly contingent on technological replication, schemas of what constitutes personhood are manifested into our subconscious by the dissemination of images. These images portray spaces that in themselves affirm existence, if simply by the act of making visible. After all, from the dawn of portrait photography, the ability to be represented with dignity and autonomy has been reserved for those with access to agency and social status. By creating these photographs, Lawson and her subjects broaden the question of who has the right to be represented. The people she depicts, posed representatives of a much larger social identity, are neither ‘alternative’ nor ‘peripheral’: they are fundamental to the fabric of a society itself.

One of Lawson’s most formidable works, The Garden (2015), attests to this by rewriting and inscribing Black bodies into the Christian creation myth. In the photograph, a man and a woman—both naked and Black—pose as Adam and Eve in a verdant Congolese forest. They are almost consumed by a barrage of lush greenery and the dark space beyond, yet they are fully at home, masters of their space, tender in their interacting, glowing bodies. That these two strangers are posited as Adam and Eve presents a narrative infiltration of sorts: the willful insertion of the Black body into religious imagery that has—insofar as Western art history is concerned—been co-opted as the basis of a white world order. 

As the fabled parents of all mankind, Adam and Eve represent hope and redemption, rebirth in the aftermath of disaster. Yet the representations of these figures, and of many Christian subjects throughout art history, has remained startlingly homogenous, particularly in skin tone: whiteness, and its associations with purity and moral virtue (both linguistically, by a Nietzschean breakdown of the language binary, and culturally, by authors like Richard Dyer), have relegated so many to the peripheries. In Dyer’s words, whiteness has come to be equated with virtue: “This remarkable equation relates to a particular definition of goodness. All lists of the moral connotations of white as symbol in Western culture are the same: purity, spirituality, transcendence, cleanliness, virtue, simplicity, chastity.”9

Ultimately, the essence of Lawson’s photographic meaning rests on the value judgment she contests—a subliminal privileging of whiteness that is now formally acknowledged yet subtly self-perpetuating, manifested as much in physical appearance as in bourgeois material culture. 

Today, Black beauty is too often forced into one of two systemic outcomes: conform to the pre-established social code of white capitalism, or face exploitative appropriation. White beauty standards, cultural norms, and socioeconomic privilege meet at the confluence of ‘respectability,’ which comes to characterize the appropriate nature of both professional environments and the general public sphere. But a closer look at respectability reveals that its very nomenclature is exclusionary: it suggests that one’s ability to be respected is predicated on one’s ability to homogenize. It reveals, in the words of Dr. Paisley Harris, “the deeply entwined nature of culture and politics and the personal and political,” vis-a-vis the “linkage of ‘private’ or personal behavior to public status.”10

That’s because the private is inherently political. The progenitors of such a social code meet the pioneers of a new period, in which representation asserts the validity, dignity, and fundamental value of myriad social textures. Through her posing of beautiful Black models in comfortable, working-class domestic interiors, Lawson contests the baseless equation of bourgeois white conformity with worth. One might recall the famous refrain from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skins, White Masks: “You come too late, much too late. There will always be a world—a white world between you and us.”11 By creating portraits that subvert this sense of lateness, this inability to fit into an exclusive world order seemingly decided by the privileged few, Lawson creates alternative worlds: ones resplendent, spiritual, and captivating beyond the spectator’s limited imagination.


NOTES

1 Mary Dellas. “An Artist Explains Her Staged Photos of Black Intimacy.” The Cut. March 

14, 2018.

2 “Deana Lawson: Ways that Sexuality, Violence, Family, and Social Status May Be Written Upon the Body.” Magazine Contemporary Culture. February 10, 2017.

3 Zadie Smith, “Deana Lawson’s Kingdom of Restored Glory,” The New Yorker, June 22, 2018. 

4 William J. Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American 

Institutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

5 Zadie Smith, “Deana Lawson’s Kingdom of Restored Glory,” The New Yorker, June 22, 

2018.

6 Deana Lawson. “Statement.” Center for Photography at Woodstock, 2011.

7 Zadie Smith, “Deana Lawson’s Kingdom of Restored Glory,” The New Yorker, June 22, 

2018.

8 Cameraperson, dir. Kirsten Johnson, 2016.

9 Richard Dyer and Maxime Cervulle, White: Twentieth Anniversary Edition (London and 

New York: Routledge – Taylor et Francis Group, 2017).

10 Paisley Jane Harris, “Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women’s History and Black Feminism,” Journal of Women’s History 15, no. 1 (2003): 219.

11 Frantz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 1986), 122.

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