Deana Lawson is a photographer who makes portraits, mostly. But the longer you look at her work, the more you wonder whether she isn’t also a secret surrealist or an ardent, all-embracing lover disguised as a mild-mannered real estate photographer.
She is good, at any rate, at inveigling her way into other people’s homes. Her prevailing approach is to ask people — mostly strangers — to pose in the interiors they inhabit. She has done this in places such as Soweto, Brooklyn, Jamaica and Port-au-Prince. Sometimes the people are naked, sometimes they’re clothed. They may be solo or in company.
Lawson’s large color prints — a suite of which is on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh — are frank, overt, all on the surface. But there’s more to that surface than you think. Looking at them is like meeting someone who is engaging, polite, kindhearted — and just a little sly. You can’t help wondering what they’re getting up to. You want to be their friend, their co-conspirator.
Lawson is one of the most interesting of a crop of artists subtly reinventing photographic portraiture. Born in 1979, she was raised in Rochester, N.Y., and is a resident of Brooklyn. She was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial and has had solo shows in museums in St. Louis and Chicago.
One of her photographs was used on the cover of “Freetown Sound,” the gorgeous 2016 album by Blood Orange (a.k.a. Dev Hynes). Aperture is releasing a first monograph of her work, with an essay by Zadie Smith, in September.
Lawson has said she is interested in “how one moves, thinks and loves in the world.” In one portrait, a slender woman wearing nothing but a gleaming wristwatch poses at the far end of a plush, wide-seated sofa. In another, a young man in jeans and a buttoned-up white jacket gestures at the camera from behind a bed while his little sister, still a girl, half his height, hides her face behind him.
Two men without shirts glower at the camera in a third. One curls the index finger of an outstretched arm in a come-hither gesture. His companion, who has tattoos, a lithe body and stoned-looking eyes, has a strange and threatening contraption attached to his mouth.
These portraits have an intense reality effect: We feel ourselves in the presence of real people, real poses, authentic interiors. And so we are.
Lawson is not trying to create a hermetically sealed photographic fiction, in the manner of Gregory Crewdson or Cindy Sherman. Nor is she trying to be objective. Instead, these photographs are the product of knowing encounters between a curious, sensitive, experimental artist and her cooperative subjects. Her approach is relaxed, playful, responsive. There’s no script, no rule.
Lawson freely manipulates light, vantage point, framing, pose and props — lots of props — to suit her purposes. The contraption on the tattooed man’s mouth, for instance, is orthodontic equipment that Lawson suggested he try on. She might choose a patterned bedspread or a Michael Jackson poster because it chimes with a personal memory or achieves some other effect she is after.
Lawson is acutely aware of the “history of certain voices not being included in the history of art.” And that’s certainly part of what makes her interesting. She wants to show, she has said, “bodies [of black people] who might not have been celebrated” in museums and art galleries. And not just black bodies, but black interiors.
If you had to reduce her oeuvre to a hashtag, it could be #BlackLivesMatter. But she is an artist, not a slogan, and her purpose, I think, goes much deeper.
Each of her portraits hits you first as a charged exchange between an artist and her subjects. But quickly, that charge is diffused in the ongoing richness of everything else in the photos.
It’s the “everything else” that is so eloquent.
A nude woman poses seductively, and perhaps a bit warily, in the far corner of a room on a sofa. Fine. But scattered on the same sofa are two TV remotes, a set of keys and a Pokémon toy. There is a side table with a paperback novel (“Hush, Hush” by Becca Fitzpatrick, its cover coming loose) and three photo frames showing a smiling boy (in a heart-shaped frame of gold velvet) and two girls in white outfits. Rich, pale pink satin curtains provide the backdrop.
A nearby image shows a couple posing in a kitchen. As a portrait, it’s tender, loving, with a slightly stiff and stagy element that adds interest. She wears short shorts, a crop top and white hoop earrings. He, bare-chested, stands holding her from behind. They’re a compelling couple.
But slowly, as you look, they’re overwhelmed by what’s around them, which generates an almost involuntary wave of noticing: The frilly, floral, translucent curtains. The old, yellowing fridge with the box of vinyl “examination gloves” perched on top. The toaster above the low shelf that acts as a kind of makeshift pantry with pasta, marinated artichoke hearts, tinned spaghetti, dried beans. And the two golden sea gulls fixed to the wall.
Each of Lawson’s pictures, you could say, stages a contest to determine which aspect is more expressive, more compelling, more definingly human in the hands of a camera — the human subjects or the objects around them.
Lawson has an almost Chekhovian feeling for all the little storm cells of feeling — rapport, alienation, projection, dejection — that form unexpectedly between people and objects, and between people and the interiors that frame them.
Her feeling for disjuncture is built into the mechanical, unedited, all-at-once vision of the camera. In fact, you feel at times that Lawson doesn’t have to do much to make her pictures so good. She just charms her way in, looks, makes a few adjustments, looks again and snaps. Whole worlds are revealed.
That’s the genius of the camera, perhaps. But the real trick, as always, is putting it in the right hands.
Deana Lawson Through July 22 at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh. cmoa.org.