Photographer's Fresh Take On African-American Life Featured At The Carnegie

Mar 19, 2018

A young couple embraces in a kitchen. A man holding a shotgun stares from the corner of his living room. A naked woman regards the viewer from her couch.

These photos look like snapshots, but they’re really the staged work of photographer Deana Lawson, known nationally for her portraits, fresh takes on African-American life. Now her photographs are being shown in Pittsburgh for the first time, at the Carnegie Museum of Art.

"Barbara and Mother" by artist Deana Lawson
Credit Courtesy of Deana Lawson

Brooklyn-based Lawson’s approach is unique in that like a painter or filmmaker, she first conceives of an image – a man and woman posed to depict young black love, for instance – and then “casts” the photo, often with people she sees on the street, of many different ages and body types. Lawson carefully poses these everyday folks in everyday settings, like their own living rooms or kitchens.

“It’s a blur between, I think, documentary photography and staged photography,” said Lawson recently, interviewed at the CMOA the day before her show opened to the public.

The effect is family album photos taken to a new level of intensity. Lawson’s work has been shown at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. The 10 photos displayed at CMOA were shot in New York, South Carolina, South Africa and Swaziland. Some are nudes. One image, titled “Nation,” depicts a shirtless young man whose mouth is stretched by a bizarre metal apparatus – actually a dental device painted gold.

“I knew I wanted to play around with contemporary notions of bling, but also [was] thinking about the history of ethnographic portraiture, and black bodies, and maybe the history of brutality of black bodies,” she said.

"Woman with Child."
Credit Courtesy of Deana Lawson

These photos are big – the largest Lawson has ever exhibited. Some are five feet or more wide or tall.

“When I was working on the show I was thinking about the black body in relationship to royalty, and I felt like the scale had to command the space, that royal space,” she said.

The show also includes two large photo assemblages that occupy corners of the Carnegie’s Forum gallery, created from found photos, media images of celebrities, and Lawson’s own family photos.

“The show is about bringing value to everyday black life, maybe even on a monumental scale in terms of how big the prints are. It’s about beauty and rethinking notions of beauty, intimacy and domestic spaces,” Lawson said.

The exhibit Deana Lawson, organized by the Carnegie’s Dan Leers, runs through July 22.