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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week Deana Lawson Photographs by Deana Lawson Reviewed by Blake Andrews Deana Lawson is one of the most compelling artists of her generation. Lawson's photography invites comparison to the masterworks of Diane Arbus, Jeff Wall, and Carrie Mae Weems. Over the last decade, Lawson has created a visionary language to describe identities, through intimate portraiture and striking accounts of ceremonies and rituals.
Deana Lawson. By Deana Lawson.
Deana Lawson
Photographs by Deana Lawson

Aperture, New York, 2018.
104 pp., 40 color and duotone illustrations, 11x13¾".

Deana Lawson's Aperture monograph hit me like a Mack Truck. Starting with the very first photo — a barely dressed couple locked in a sultry embrace, the woman leering askance near their sleeping infant. It's a disquieting image, and just an inkling of what's to come. A flood of theatrical and bewitching portraits follows, or what seems a flood anyway. In reality, the book only has 40 photos. But they feel like a multitude. This is Lawson's first monograph, after all, and it comes at age 39, more than a decade into her career. Bookwise, she's been bottled up. So it's no surprise her debut packs a wallop. This huge book pulls out all the stops, with marbled endpapers, maroon gilded edges, and exhibition-quality reproductions. But of course, it's the photos which are the core.

Lawson's subject matter varies but certain motifs abound. Most of her models are nude. They're generally centered in the frame and set in messy domestic spaces, from which they glare back at the camera. Are they bored? Irritated? Proud? Defiant? It's hard to say. Indeed, the magic of these photos lies in their ambiguity. One shows a shirtless man holding a half-cocked rifle. In another, a naked woman floats in erect yoga pose over a tiger rug. There's a man with a large dental implement matching his gold chains, a bloody pig's head worn as a hat, a nude couple crisscrossed under Mickey Mouse. These photos aren't afraid to air dirty laundry, sometimes literally. But what exactly is going on here?

Part of what makes Lawson's portraits unsettling is that they give the effect of documentary exposures, when instead they're carefully choreographed. Lawson finds her models in various locales —"from lower-class or working-class backgrounds"— locates sets, then combines her subject matter in ways that look beguilingly real and regal. "Her people seem to occupy a higher plane," writes Zadie Smith in the opening essay. You can see strains of other strong portraitists in Lawson's direct style —Arbus, Weems, and Bruce Wrighton, to name a few. All share a certain rugged brutalism. But Lawson's voice is hers. In fact, she's found what all photographers seek: Immediately recognizable authorship.

Did I mention that Lawson and all of her subjects are black? Oh yes, the racial component. I'm a white man, and I'm going to speculate that most of Lawson's audience is also white. Perhaps you are too? So the book's inherent dynamic —caucasian viewers consuming black subjects— is weighted with the troublesome baggage of the white gaze. As John Edwin Mason recently tweeted, "white people like to look at photos of black people. No question. There's a seemingly insatiable demand for photos of black folks."

Lawson is unquestionably aware of this dynamic. Perhaps she's leveraged it to advantage by amplifying the exoticism of her subjects? Her photos dance around racial stereotypes, depicting her subjects as primitive, fierce, lascivious, and gauche. Could whitey make these photos? Hell no. But in Lawson’s hands they are something else. She embraces generalities and tosses them back at the viewer.

"Prelapsarian," Zadie Smith calls Lawson's photographs: "before the fall." The book's final photo encapsulates Smith's thought — a naked couple sitting amid lush vegetation. But her words might describe any photo in the book, which is seeped throughout in a tone of Edenic timelessness. They seem to exist outside of time or place. Long before receiving her MFA, Lawson's own creation story carried seeds of photo prehistory. She grew up in Rochester. Her grandmother worked for George Eastman, her mother for Kodak. Her father was an avid photographer. "I was destined to be an artist with a camera," she tells Arthur Jafa in an interview included in the book. She's far surpassed those beginnings at this point, with an MFA, Guggenheim fellowship, and now Aperture monograph in hand.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at