From the Archives: “Deana Lawson” (2021-2022) at the ICA Boston

This review of the Deana Lawson survey show, held at the ICA Boston, was originally published in the January/February 2022 issue of Art New England.

A handful of powerful photographs will cause you to stop and reflect at the ICA Boston’s Deana Lawson exhibition. 

Dev Hynes/Blood Orange fans will be delighted to see Binky & Tony Forever (2009). The image was the cover of Hynes’s 2016 alternative album Freetown Sound. (Be sure to look closer at the mirror’s reflection. Four Black girls murdered by the Ku Klux Klan at Alabama’s 16th Street Baptist Church, in September 1963, are featured there). 

The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church | American Freedom Stories | Biography

The two Assemblages (2021), presented separately, are showstoppers, with their whiplash arrangement of pop culture, history, and photos from the Lawson family album. There’s the macabre Nation (2018). And how can a viewer not feel the sense of agency and happiness in Wanda and Daughters (2009)? 

Wanda and Daughters (2009) by Deana Lawson

Yet Deana Lawson co-curator and ICA chief curator Eva Respini opined–-and warmly stated that she can only “speak from her own vantage point,”–-that Portal is the underrated triumph of the photographer and Rochester, NY native’s first museum survey show.

“It’s not a picture of a person or people, which is most of Deana’s work. This is a close-up of a tear in a leather couch,” Respini says. She first worked with Lawson in 2010 when she was a Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) curator and Lawson was featured in MoMA’s New Photography 2011. She’s been an admirer of her growing oeuvre ever since. 

“It’s a super important picture to Deana and has become in a way, for me, a symbol of the show.” The 2017 image also covers the official Deana Lawson book, co-edited by Respini. “I like to think it’s interesting and useful to think of her pictures as portals to another world. You come down the rabbit hole and there you are. Her vision.”

In Lawson’s world, black life is her métier, and what you’ll observe spans identities, aspects, and zip codes. Her images appear both vibrant and muted, in tone and energy, which explains the familiar ‘80s-‘90s camera resolution. Thus harkening to a time in which Lawson became aware of the impact of images. And not just through the family photo albums she was a part of, but also the ads of her youth. In Hair Advertisement (2005), she re-imagines an ‘80s beauty ad, reminiscent of brands like Ultra Sheen that marketed to Black women. 

Hair Advertisement (2005) by Deana Lawson

Within such a specific macrocosm that through these prints will translate as extremely intimate and unvarnished showings of Blackness, Lawson explores subjects as varied as the traditional Trinidadian festival Jouvert (2013) to post-mortem.

Albeit, as candid as her photographs look, they are surprisingly choreographed and star real people or non-models, cast to pose as lovers, friends, family, acquaintances, or solo while representing a moment in this (Black) American life, in locations personal or discovered by Lawson. 

Objects and items receive direction as well, and some photographs spotlight ancestors and the diaspora, such as the shrine in Altar (2010). The written introduction at the start of Deana Lawson discloses that her photos are staged. But despite the tidbit, this major fact diffuses from room to room.

Rochester, NY, was also the birthplace of Kodak. Via a November 2021 Vogue profile, Lawson shared her family’s history with the famed brand, making her eventual career in photography translate as utter kismet. Her mother held an administrative position at Kodak for nearly 40 years. While Lawson’s grandmother was at one point a housekeeper for Kodak founder George Eastman. Even Lawson’s father was involved with imagery, as a Xerox employee. 

Furthermore, photography’s transformative decades of creating analog images inform the technical side of her work. She is classically trained and uses large-format view cameras. 

“One of the things I love about that technology is that you can see every detail,” Respini says. In Deana Lawson, some of the photographs are as big as four feet wide, allowing for “superior richness of detail.”

Lawson’s images also evoke the work of the black artists that came before her and felt the call to study and remember the Black experience, such as author Toni Morrison. Morrison is a fitting nod. Respini says that “You can think of Lawson–-and she talks about this too–-as if she were a writer. These are stories she’s telling, just through photographic technology. Portal, [for example], stimulates our mindset into understanding these pictures as fiction.”

So much of fiction is reliant upon real experiences, and the more than 30 photographs in Deana Lawson speak a powerful truth.

Why not show a black couple’s loving embrace in a lush setting? 

Why aren’t homes in the “hood” canonized as a part of American life without shame?

Why can’t the naked black body just be?

And if only that towel in Jamaica’s Hellshire Beach (Hellshire Beach Towel with Flies, 2013) could talk, the stories it would divulge.

“This survey show isn’t a final word by any means,” Respini notes. “It’s an opportunity to look back at a career that’s been really singular and makes an argument for Lawson who has sustained in interesting ways, narratives around black life, and specifically, its intimacy, desire, and the notion of family through the lens of photography.”

Deana Lawson ill be shown next at the MoMA PS1 April 14–September 5, 2022, and then the High Museum October 7, 2022–February 19, 2023.

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