Whitehot Magazine

November 2011: In Conversation with Deana Lawson

Deana Lawson, Diva at 73 Years Old, Pigmented inkjet print, 2009

New Photography
September 27 - January 16 2012
The Museum of Modern Art

On September 27th MoMA opened its annual New Photography exhibition showcasing six photographers and/or artists working with photography as medium that the institution has selected for making images in a unique and notable way. Such a formal introduction by one of the world’s foremost contemporary art museums is certainly a milestone in the trajectory of one’s career and a great honor. Among the chosen ones this year is Deana Lawson, originally from Rochester, New York, and a graduate of the MFA program at RISD in Providence, Rhode Island. Last month she was kind enough to meet me for a coffee and asked me to come to Bedstuy so we could talk about her photographs, practice, and point of view. It was just a couple of days before the show opened. Lawson is a recipient of the Aaron Siskind Fellowship Grant. She has exhibited at the Center for Photography at Woodstock and at PS1 in Queens. She lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. New Photography will be on exhibition at MoMA until January 16th, 2012.

Sabine Mirlesse: How did you begin taking pictures?
Deana Lawson: I’m from Rochester, New York, the home of Eastman Kodak, which is interesting-- but actually I did not have any art background in high school. I went into my undergrad with the intention of being an International Business major. It wasn’t until the end of my sophomore year that I realized I wanted to be on the creative end of the spectrum. At the time I thought it would be fashion design. I applied to Parsons, but luckily I didn’t get in because if I had I might not be sitting and interviewing with you right now.  I knew that I wanted to go into the creative arts and I started taking art classes and fumbled miserably, did terrible on 3D assignments and painting, and then finally took my first photo class. Right away, I was just kind of blown away by some of the photographers that I was looking at, but I didn’t realize that I really could be a photographer until I was referred to African-American photographers like Carrie Mae Weems and Renée Cox. We had an assignment to write about an artist and I hadn’t seen any artists of color and I was like “Are there any black photographers at all??” And the teacher was like “yeah, there is this woman, I forget her name… but I think it’s like Lorna Simpson or something?” Well, I just spent that next whole evening so entranced by Lorna’s work. Just to have that model-- to realize that not only did I like to make pictures but that I could actually do this, you know, was absolutely important to reaffirm myself as an artist.  

Mirlesse: So not having any role models that were black and female at first and until you were exposed to them you didn’t feel like you could be a photographer? Is there something about your work you make that consciously relates directly to your being female and black?

Lawson: Definitely this belief that knowledge is gained through the body, through experiences, through giving birth for example. Whereas to me, a Western concept of intelligence is built off of what school you go to or what institution you’re connected to. I definitely reaffirm knowledge through community, through family, through being a mother, through being a wife, and through my friendships. I think that comes through in the people that I choose to photograph. I think my representation of sexuality is very different than some male photographers’. I try to contextualize sexuality with ideas of the psychic. I connect sexuality with… love and not divested from that which at times becomes pornographic.  

Mirlesse: And as for being African-American?  

Lawson: One thing I will say is that I remember while I was in grad school there were other artists dealing with similar issues such as family, the body, psychology. One of them was a white male photographer and we were actually making quite similar work. Somehow it seemed in critiques that the blackness of the subject was brought up, while whiteness was invisible. You know if I were dealing with issues of family, it was always taken as being about issues of ‘black family’ as if it were it’s own category. Actually, I think that there is a part of me that feels like “what is Deana” versus “how am I representing Deana as coming from a collective African-American community?” “What part is me and what part is an attempt to represent this shared aesthetic and shared experience?” Coming from a working class background in Rochester, New York and being black? I think class and my blackness definitely visually effect what I’m doing.

Mirlesse: I wanted to ask you about this term used to describe your work for the PS1 Greater New York show you did. I was hoping you could elaborate on the phrase “sacred sexuality”?  

Lawson: I remember watching “The Divine Horseman”, which is a film made by Maya Deren where she went to Haiti and filmed certain rituals and practices. The narrator mentioned a phrase “the eternal erotic” which I just found fascinating?the phrase has stuck with me throughout the years…The idea of the “eternal erotic” is something that I believe surpasses modern notions of attractiveness and sexiness. What I imagine to be eternally erotic involves a spiritual aura that resides in the physical body, and informs how one moves, thinks, and loves in the world. I use this idea as psychic material when thinking about photographs, and working with subjects.

Mirlesse: You’re quoted in an article in TimeOut magazine as having commented that “[your] own being is found in union with those [you] take pictures of” which I found to be a very poetic statement, unusually mystical sounding given our time, and very beautiful as an idea. It’s not exactly trendy to talk like that nowadays? 

Lawson: That is the damn truth! 

Mirlesse: --Right. So could you maybe elaborate on it?  

Lawson: Whoever I photograph I start from the premise that they are a magnificent human being and that my experience as a human being interacting with theirs makes all that that much more complex. We live in a culture right now where we are really isolated… isolated in our apartments, or in our suburban homes, etc. When I’m photographing a subject I guess I really am trying to figure out who I am as a human being too. You know, in a sense, I’m actually trying to learn something through them sharing their time and image with me. Oftentimes I might end up being friends with someone I’ve photographed for a while. There is one woman who lives in the neighborhood, I actually just stopped by yesterday, … it’s this ongoing friendship/relationship to the point where I call her my fairy godmother. She is about seventy-five years old. She has definitely influenced me in many ways beyond someone with just an amazing photograph. Visually my work definitely comes across as working class like I said-- not only are there black people in it, but it is about working class black people. It’s definitely worthy to affirm that body. That body is worthy to be considered a piece of art. The same thing is true when it comes to even just talking about my work, even within ‘black art speak’, you don’t know what’s being said. Not only do we have a responsibility to be true to this visually as artists but also in the language through which we speak. I think it’s important to affirm my vernacular from Rochester. That is part of the work as well.  

Mirlesse: I read that before you moved to New York City that you lived in New Haven?  

Lawson: My husband, Aaron Gilbert, is a painter. He went to Yale.

Mirlesse: So you were there because of him?  

Lawson: I was also taking classes, because you can take classes for free?I was definitely kind of like Yale’s stepchild, I would go to photo crits and watch like a spectator, and take classes in the art department.  

Mirlesse: What is your favorite spot in New Haven?  

Lawson: East Rock park. That was our favorite spot. My son used to love that park.  

Mirlesse: How do the photographs you take relate to the family snapshot? What distinguishes between the two for you?

Lawson: Oftentimes I tell people that the family album was my first inspiration, and that I even still love to look at family albums, even others peoples’. I love that gap or space between that moment and what is the reality, what is left out and what is kept. Looking at old photos of my aunts and my mom, celebrations, ceremonies, cookouts, effected my intention or my purpose in terms of wanting the image to feel really familial even if the subjects aren’t related. I might also stage certain photographs when the subjects aren’t related when they are meant to come off as boyfriend and girlfriend or mother and daughter. I want that feeling. In terms of lighting, I love warm tungsten lighting. However, with my photographs I’m using a 6x7 and a 4x5 camera so they become kind of like the heightened version of the family snapshot.  

Deana Lawson, Roxie and Raquel, Pigmented inkjet print, 2010

Mirlesse: What do people in your photographs think of the work?  

Lawson: I think sometimes they’re shocked in the sense of not necessarily recognizing themselves! Barbara for example is really excited about the show. I think they feel excited, and honored, I guess, to be validated in that way by any sort of gallery situation.  

Mirlesse: Let’s talk about access. Do you find that you are permitted into your subjects’ homes and intimate spaces more easily because you have the same color skin or because you’re female? Do you feel like the people you photograph trust you more to represent them? I ask because you talk about the desire to represent a certain community and it’s an ambitious task to set out on, full of layers. Do you think that you are granted access because you are part of that community whereas a white male might have more difficulty?  

Lawson: I think it’s a yes and no answer. Subjects have told me straight out that they wouldn’t have decided to pose for me if I wasn’t a woman. And they’ve said like “there’s something about you where I feel comfortable to do certain things” --maybe because they are picking up on my energy, and they feel secure with me photographing them. However, I do think there is a history of certain people having a legacy of access whether it be the access to go to art school, to buy a camera, to travel around and make their pictures?I think that isn’t unusual. What I think is more unusual is people who haven’t had that sort of access to the art world, or to the academic world of photography, to be able to self-represent.  

Mirlesse: Versus the history of a colonial bird’s eye view, that your work instead may be absent of ‘othering’ ?

Lawson: I think people assume that because I’m black. 

Mirlesse: But you know, at least in my own personal experience in seeing your images for the first time, I didn’t know who took them. I couldn’t necessarily guess either. And when I did find out more about you it didn’t mean I was suddenly relieved. In my opinion it comes from the feeling of the images themselves… 

Lawson: That’s an amazing compliment. There is a certain energy going into the work I’m making that I can’t talk about from a logical or rational viewpoint. There is a love for the people that I’m photographing, even when I’m making a profane picture, that love is the underlying gaze.  

Mirlesse: Can you talk about the Assemblage piece you did and about how you change the context of those pictures?  

Lawson: I work with a lot of appropriated images anyway. I often gather images from the subject. I have a photo from Barbara for example that came straight of her mantel that is really freakin’ amazing and I printed it the same size as every other picture and it blended in right away. In some ways you couldn’t distinguish between which images I took and which were appropriated. Assemblage wasn’t initially meant to be a piece, it was just an image-board. When I was at LMCC (Lower Manhattan Community Council) and we had to switch our studios. I got this weird space and I was trying to figure out how to put this work on the wall in this different environment and that’s when it became a corner piece, which I think activated it in a certain way. I definitely think there is a certain energy to that piece that also is imbedded with the other straightforward work, represent colonialism, popular culture, celebrity, but also being curated through my personal experience and my eye, you know I listen to Biggie Smalls and then you’ll see a picture of my husband’s friend from the American University, or you’ll see, like, you know, images of war in Uganda. It’s all intermixed. I’m still a part of this continuum right now-- this cultural currency, or the way images are circulated. I’m a part of it in the art world, I’m a part of it by looking. I guess the Assemblage became a reflection of that.  But I also wanted it to be like this organism too that could grow. With each new installation it has to be improvised. Freestyle. I need to be responding in the moment to what is juxtaposed against what and what energy happens when you take this picture versus another. In that way it’s kind of mimicking the tradition of improvisation in black music. I like working in that space. I think I always have that improvisational mode. I know I’m going to be showing up at someone’s house, I might not know what that house is going to look like, I might never have been in that house before, but I’ll have all my equipment. Or I’ll know I’ll be photographing that subject but I’m not quite sure what she’s gonna wear-- so all that stuff is decided on in the moment.  

Mirlesse: Instead of stating that you yourself work in an improvisational way, point-blank, you choose to connect it to something cultural – like a legacy of improvisation in black music… 

Lawson: Oh, definitely. For sure.

Deana Lawson, Baby Sleep, Pigmented inkjet print, 2009

Mirlesse: Okay, so this might sound too direct or as though I’m being entirely ‘politically incorrect’ or naïve, but I can’t help but be interested and find it relevant and just want to know how you feel -- are you improvisational because you simply are? Or are you improvisational in your work practice because you feel it’s part of your identity as an African-American artist? Drawing attention to that point is important I think because it get’s tricky if you were to say for example “oh she’s improvisational because she’s part of a particular community or ethnic background”? It can be problematic…  

Lawson:  I hear what you’re saying. I think it’s problematic if you say it, but, for me, I find being improvisational to be this amazing characteristic of black culture, so when I associate myself with that, I’m actually feeling like wow, I’m connected in a way, being a part of that, but doing it in my own way, through my photography, whereas someone else might be doing it through freestyle hip-hop, or through dancing. Someone might have a problem with me saying this. Someone black might have a problem with me saying that.

Mirlesse: You’ve done a few artist-in-residence programs, most recently at Light Work in Syracuse, could you tell me what your take on these kinds of programs is?  

Lawson: I think these residencies are needed. Artists can get caught up in life, whether it be work or anything that takes them away from making their own art. I really need sustained time. I do a lot of things, you know. I’m a mother. I have to get my son ready for school in the morning. I gotta cook. I do need that time to just dedicate to my work and that’s important. I also think-- you know you were asking before about if I felt the presence of my female-ness in my work and so forth-- I never really had the luxury of being in a studio environment and when I think of traditional philosophers, you know, sitting with a pipe thinking for a long time about these theories and sh*t… I mean, girl, I don’t have that kind of quietude! I don’t think a lot of women do. Even that mess though can be used for material for your work. Which is what I do. For example the image Baby sleep --that is directly drawn from real sh*t! You know what I’m saying? When I’m printing, I definitely like to be in my own zone. But when I’m shooting, like right now I’m actually at a residency in Woodstock, I’ve been going back and forth because of the show, but when my family dropped me off up there they were like “What are you going to do up here?” and I was like “I don’t know!” Like, “this is the weirdest time-warp place” but as soon as I got off the bus back to NY I thanked God. I’m constantly stimulated in NY, but I do think for me at this point I definitely need to leave to shoot. Even though there are so many people here and there is definitely access, there’s also definitely something of New York that makes me feel scatterbrained and not focused at all. When I went down South to visit a friend of mine about two years ago to do this shoot I road-tripped for three weeks and I was just shooting, shooting, shooting! That was the last big amount of work that I’ve made and I was on this vibe, conjuring images. Here in the city it’s very distracting. I think you do have to be part of the game here though, in terms of the commercial aspect of it.  

Mirlesse: Do you have a favorite piece of music?   

Lawson: Yeah, I do. When I’m in the studio and I definitely wanna zone out, and listen to good music… definitely the song by Notorious B.I.G. “Missing you” and also the collaboration he did with Bone Thugs n’ Harmony. I just love the narrative aspect to his hip hop which I think is missing in current hip hop. He can tell a really good story where you really think you are there, which is what I try to do with my photographs. So definitely him. But then I’ll swing on the other side of the pendulum and listen to Mahalia Jackson’s “I Wanna Live the Life I’m Singin’ About.” Regarding the work I make I not only wanna make it but I wanna live it, as in aligning myself with the idea. I just love the gospel and the energy in that song is just so provocative and amazing.

Mirlesse: A piece of advice to a young artist?  

Lawson: I’m emerging myself and I still have a lot to learn. But what’ I’ll say is I definitely think it’s important to remember to hold on to that swagger in whatever you do?in your art making process and your language, and connect with your artist peers.

Mirlesse: What are you working on now?

Lawson: I generally like to keep things a bit secret. When I’m unsure of things I don’t necessarily like to talk about them. On the radar for me is traveling to make some work again. I definitely want to push these ideas of family and sexuality further, expanding them but also getting more specific at the same time.

Deana Lawson, Assemblage, 2010

Deana Lawson, Assemblage, detail, 2010

Sabine Mirlesse, Portrait of Deana Lawson, 2011


Sabine Mirlesse

Sabine Mirlesse is a photographer and visual artist currently living and working in Paris. She is a recent graduate of the MFA Photography and Related Media program at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City and has written for The Paris Review and BOMB Magazine in addition to the NY edition of Whitehot. Contact her at info@sabinemirlesse.com or at her website


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