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Monday, June 22, 2015

The Deana Lawson Questions

We had the privilege this week to have Deana Lawson, photographer, as a visiting artist to VSC. She shared her work with us on Thursday and then came to my studio on Friday. A lecturer and soon to be professor at Princeton and an MFA graduate from RISD in 2004, Lawson’s work has been shown all over, including at MoMa, the studio Museum in Harlem, and the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago.  Her photographs and stories have been featured in magazine such as the New Yorker and Time.  
Question one, for both Lawson and for myself: Who are you to tell this story?

Lawson with one of her pictures
Working mostly in the Brooklyn, Rochester and New Haven areas, Lawson recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship that allowed her to travel to the DR Republic of Congo, Jamaica and to Haiti. A good storyteller, Lawson cited both a real and almost mythical Kodak photographic lineage and referenced the “photo Gods” at play in her work. When Lawson spoke of the designs and compositions of her shots she gave a nod to Hieronymus Bosch, Diane Arbus, Egyption iconography, soft porn magazines and, (in preparation for Haiti), Maya Deren.

Her images are mostly of nude women within domestic interiors and in contrast to clothed men. She celebrates skin and the dynamic relationships captured in the shot between multiple figures. I was reminded of Manet’s Le Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe. 

There is a definite shock value to the nudity as well as the prominent stare of the subject to the photographer /us. Being a beautiful black woman, Lawson is able, I might suggest, to tackle this subject and get away with not seeming to be totally exploitative.

Question two: How important is the story?

Lawson's appropriated photos of a cousin's jailhouse visits
Her photography practice, as Lawson tells it, serves to affirm the connection between black men and women and defy the stereotypical media emphasis on the separation of the black family, due to things such as the neighborhood prison pipeline. She both directs her desired scene, (hiring models and sharing a sketch with them ahead of time) and uses appropriated photographs and online screen shots.

Ms. Lawson must be an excellent teacher. Carting a three-month old baby daughter with her, she tirelessly visited studio after studio. Our visit resulted in a fruitful list of resources to check out: book titles, artists, etc. She questioned my multiple bodies of work and suggested that I narrow the focus for the next few weeks to just one aspect of the work, and that I take more time to suggest rather than illustrate. She asked me to answer the questions above, and, ironically those were the same questions I had for her work as well.
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