Issues of Intimacy, Distance, and Disavowal in Writing About Deana Lawson’s Work

The story of this essay, its rejection by the artist and her gallery, and by Aperture and Frieze raise critical questions about the relationship between living artists and critical mechanisms for evaluating their work.

Dena Lawson, “Girls with Oiled Faces” (2004) via Paddle 8

LOS ANGELES — This is an essay in two parts. The first was originally commissioned by Aperture in 2016. The monograph division rejected it. I then submitted it to Frieze. Despite its initially enthusiastic reception, the magazine ultimately killed the work. Both rejections are the result of Deana Lawson’s dissatisfaction with my contextualization of her work and the acquiescence of editors to her wish not to see this article published. The essay’s first part investigates Lawson’s work in relation to African American, modern and contemporary art, and visual culture. The second explores the lives of this essay and the implications of the artist’s wish to bury it.

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Intimacy and Distance

On 17 June 2015, just after 8 pm, white supremacist Dylan Roof walked into the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Upon his arrival, a group of African American parishioners invited him to join their Bible study. About an hour later, Roof took out a .45-caliber handgun and started shooting. By the time his rampage was done, he had murdered Cynthia Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Daniel Simmons, Sharonda Coleman Singleton, and Myra Thompson. He spared Felicia Sanders – who lost her son and aunt in the massacre – exhorting her to tell everyone what had happened.

A few months later Time magazine commissioned Deana Lawson to go to Charleston to photograph the survivors of that terrifying night and the families of those slain. In the resultant images, published in the November 23, 2015 issue, Gracie Broome, Rev. Pickney’s grandmother, sits in a rocking chair in her living room, holding a photograph of her grandson in her lap. Ethel Lance’s granddaughter Najee Washington and daughter Nadine Collier sit in a living room. Their heads frame a picture of the deceased. Tyrone and Felicia Sanders, Tywanza’s parents, embrace in their garden, their bodies contrasting starkly with the lush surroundings. Polly Sheppard, another survivor of the bloodbath, and Felicia Sanders share an overstuffed chair in the latter’s home. All of Lawson’s Time photographs, painstakingly composed, are intimate, emotional affairs. They imbue their subjects with humanity while communicating extraordinary grief and loss.

Deana Lawson, “Family Portrait” (2007) image via Lightwork

In an online conversation with art historian Nikki A. Greene for Aperture a year after the massacre, Lawson set the Time commission against the larger landscape of contemporary violence meted against African Americans. She says that she was also responding to “the history of racial terror directed at African American personal and spiritual life from the transatlantic slave trade to the present day”.

Lawson nods to very long histories of racism and the concomitant physical and mental violence it inscribed onto the social circumstances of African American life. Black bodies have been the targets of physical and mental brutality wrought by whites since the first black people were forcibly brought to Virginia in 1619. Even after nearly 400 years of residence on this land, if you are African American, your humanity is still fodder for debate. If you are African American, without any provocation you can be stopped, frisked, arrested and murdered by US law enforcement, not because, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., of “the content of your character” but because of the color of your skin. It doesn’t matter if you live in the White House or in the ’hood. It doesn’t matter if you teach at Harvard or are studying at the School of Hard Knocks.

Although not explicitly focused on the violence of the Emanuel massacre, Lawson’s Time photographs dovetail with images that have depicted violence against black people. Lynching photographs showed our mangled, disfigured bodies as constant reminders of what was in store for an uppity African American. However, in the case of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman (who recently admitted that she had lied in her account) the published funeral image of Mamie Till staring at her son’s mutilated remains laid bare for American viewers the rank violence that could be visited on any black body, for any contrived reason.

Lawson’s Time photographs explore the aftermath of such events. Indeed, her images bring together histories of photographs that depict violence and death, and also enact collective remembrance through an investigation of private lives.

Deana Lawson “Baby Sleep” (2009), image via MoMA

As with her Time photographs, the majority of Lawson’s oeuvre explores intimacy, affinity, sexuality and relationships. Some of her images, such as “Girls with Oiled Faces” (2004), “Family Portrait” (2007),Baby Sleep” (2009) and “Wanda & Daughters” (2009), tackle such issues through investigations of familial relationships. “Girls with Oiled Faces”a depiction of two children in matching clothes seated on an overstuffed sofa – evokes the ways that parents often photograph their kids. Indeed, when I visited Lawson during her 2016 residency at the Underground Museum in Los Angeles, she showed me a table covered in snapshots and Polaroids she had collected.

In contrast to what we might expect, the families Lawson depicts do not conjure up romantic images of American – or African American – domestic life. These are women’s worlds: mothers are often at the center of the narrative. In photographs such as “Baby Sleep” and “Family Portrait,” Lawson plays with the stereotypes of black women’s supposed lasciviousness while she derails the myth of the asexual mother.

Lawson also rejects the pathologization of the black family and, by extension, black women highlighted by the influential 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a sociologist who served under President Lyndon Johnson as Assistant Secretary of Labor. This report, which blindly repeated stereotypes of blacks as intellectually and socially inferior to whites, insisted that the matriarchal structure of these units led to the weakening of black men. Instead of simply replacing negative images with positive ones, Lawson’s photographs, in a manner reminiscent of Carrie Mae Weems’s Family Pictures and Stories (1981–82) and The Kitchen Table Series (1990), imagine different ways of being black in the world.

In addition to the lessons of Weems, it’s difficult not to see Édouard Manet’s 1863 painting “Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe” (Luncheon on the Grass) – which depicts a naked woman sitting on the grass with two fully clothed men – as a model for “Family Portrait.” Unlike Manet’s canvas, “Family Portrait” is neither spectacularization of sex nor satire of sexual mores. It is, instead, an exploration of black women’s agency and familial relations, cast both as concrete issue and, as with Weems’s photographs, a metaphor for relations in culture-at-large.

Lawson’s series Mohawk Correctional Facility: Jazmin & Family (2012–14) is an appropriated selection of pictures of her cousin and her family taken by a prison photographer at the Rome, New York facility. Writing about the work in Aperture’s online supplement to “Vision and Justice,” American Studies scholar Nicole Fleetwood addressed these photos in the context of the mass incarceration of black men, noting how such photographs serve as visual reminders of the connection between the incarcerated and their families and how such imagery creates a space for self-expression in a place that provides very few options for that.

Deana Lawson, “Sharon” (2007) image via flakphoto

But Lawson’s appropriation of these photographs, a move reminiscent of Sherrie Levine’s “After Walker Evans: 1-22” (1981), focuses less on what is being documented than it does on black women’s subjectivity. Naming the photographs after Jazmin (her partner Erik is “family”), these photographs transform a traditional family portrait that seeks the rehabilitation of a black man to an exegesis on her cousin. Erik’s incarceration serves as the backdrop through which Jazmin negotiates the world; however, it is now refracted through the effects that it has on non-incarcerated black women. In addition, these appropriated images – as in the case of Gordon Parks’s famous series Southern Segregation (1956) – challenge traditional notions of American family life, particularly the ways that it continues to be narrowly structured around the poles of race, gender, sexuality and class.

Lawson’s family portraits, appropriated or not, as well as her photographs for Time bring to mind the work of Roy DeCarava. In 1955, DeCarava and Langston Hughes published their photo-book Sweet Flypaper of Life, in which a fictional grandmother, Sister Mary, narrates the life of her Harlem family. With photographs and text that frame African Americans as something other than a social problem or mangled body (remember, this is the same year as the brutal murder of Emmett Till), the book was a powerful tool in changing racial attitudes.

Not only did Sweet Flypaper of Life trouble 1950s stereotypes, it also toyed with photography’s status as document. Despite the fact that Sister Mary’s world was fictional, many readers interpreted the story as a documentary. African Americans saw what they considered to be realistic representations of themselves in these pictures. Whites saw non-stereotypical images of blacks they construed to be true. In the abyss between fiction and fact – as DeCarava, and, I believe Weems and Lawson show us – the photograph becomes both.

In this context, Lawson’s work is an exemplar, to borrow from Audre Lorde, of “biomythography”, an embodied strategy of narration that exists at the meeting place of biography, history and myth. In a 1995 conversation with bell hooks Weems detailed the potency of biomythography with reference to her 1992 series Went Looking for Africa:

You’re not looking to “document” in some scientific, linear, orderly, factual way where we came from, how we got here; you are uncovering those details, but also exploring the gaps, the spaces in the shadows that facts don’t allow us to see, the mystery.

In the early 1990s Weems made a series of photographs of the Sea Islands and locales in West Africa that explored her ancestral roots as well as routes of migration from Africa to the Americas. More than a romantic desire to return to the motherland, Weems’s images confront histories of forced movement while they stand as exegeses on longing and distance. They also theorize the place of African American women within the Afro-Atlantic, within what Paul Gilroy famously has called, “a counterculture of modernity.” Since at least the 1950s, many African American artists have gone to Africa as a means of diasporic reflection and exploration. Moreover, from the 1920s, African American artists, following the example of Pablo Picasso and other European modernists, were urged to look to African art as a means of finding both their ancestral roots and formal innovation.

Deana Lawson, “The Garden, Gemena, DR Congo” (2014) image via the Whitney Museum of American Art

Lawson has followed in these footsteps, making photographs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, and Jamaica. Take, for example, “The Garden, Gemena, DR Congo” (2014). Reminiscent of Diane Arbus’s “A Husband and Wife in a Nudist Camp, N.J.” (1963), Lawson depicts a naked couple in the forest. While Lawson references Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Africa as the birthplace of mankind, she also suggests a more personal, diasporic network based on kinship and affinity. Africa is mother, sister, brother and confidant. In this way, “The Garden” sits as an allegory of closeness and belonging. Unlike the images of many of her predecessors, her images frame Africa as less part of a romanticized, primordial past than coeval partner.

Whether in Brooklyn, Charleston, Detroit or the Afro-Atlantic diaspora, commentators on Lawson often discuss the work’s intimacy. Yet, however close the figures are with one another or with the photographer, with the notable exception of her Time photographs, the viewer is not invited into these scenes. Although Lawson’s settings suggest closeness, it’s a mood often thwarted by the awkward spaces her sitters inhabit. Often, the juxtaposition between the subjects and their surroundings can be jarring. In “Living Room” (2015), Lawson sets a man and a woman in a setting that speaks of squalor. They recede into a gold curtain held up only by masking tape; they’re surrounded by piles of laundry and boxes of clothing, books, and DVDs. Clean or dirty, furnished or empty, inside or out, Lawson’s settings often threaten to envelope their subjects. Yet, conversely, such settings also protect them.

The sitters themselves often place the viewer at a remove. Like “Family Portrait,” “The Garden” and “Baby Sleep,” as well as in photographs such as “Sharon” (2007) and “Oath” (2013), subjects look back at us and catch us by surprise. Their stares place our focus not on their naked bodies or on the acts in which they may be engaged, but on their faces. Lawson’s figures, aware of being seen, watch us watch them – and in doing so, our very right to look at them is called into question.

Lawson, like Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Weems and others, understands the body not only as a site that insists on the construction of identity, but also as one where the artist can question the implication of black women in the long histories of representation that define a racialized present characterized by their demonization. Lawson’s selves are complex and complicated bodies that refuse boundaries that would restrict what is possible in the representation of black women. Lawson has taken advantage of photography’s ability to alter perception. In so doing, she has created a space for African- American women to enter the world anew.

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This essay was originally commissioned in August 2016 by Aperture for a monograph on Deana Lawson’s work. In his request, managing editor Brendan Wattenberg asked for a text that reflects on the artist’s work “in the context of African American image culture, art-making, and the heritage of her portrait style within the history of photography.” Aperture intended this essay as the first comprehensive piece on Lawson’s work. The essay above more than fulfils Aperture’s charge.

In March 2017, Aperture rejected the submitted piece. In his communication, Wattenberg stressed that the monograph had been reconceived as an artist’s book with fewer essays. Mine was one of its casualties. Along with the invoice for the kill fee, I asked if I was free to publish the essay elsewhere. I also asked if there were problems that led to its rejection. Less than two hours later, Wattenberg suggested that I “strongly consider pitching Artforum or Frieze.” He added that he would be happy to supply me with general comments on the rejected text. He was silent on the issue of textual problems.

Months later after nudging Wattenberg for comments on the essay he kindly responded with more specific notes. Upon reading it became clear that the essay had not been rejected because of a change in direction of Aperture’s Lawson monograph, but rather because the artist and editor objected to my contextualization of her work. Wattenberg explicitly detaches Lawson’s Time commission from her larger work because it has “never been under consideration for inclusion in the monograph, or exhibitions, nor to my knowledge is it part of her commercial inventory.” He added, “I don’t even know, in fact, if she’s ever made prints from the series.” He also characterizes the commission as a thematic outlier. This set of pictures, he claims, is based on fact while Lawson’s other works are fictional in nature.

Deana Lawson, “Oath” (2013), image via Brooklyn magazine

Wattenberg then introduced a series of art historical references that somewhat differs from those I offered above. Ultimately, Lawson and Wattenberg were displeased that I had not written the essay that they would have written. Instead of parroting the artist’s words, instead of repeating the material on Lawson sent by Wattenberg, I took what I was given as information in charting out my own responses to her work and analysis of it. Lawson and Wattenberg wanted my name attached to her work; however, they did not want any analysis that questioned their worldview. My charge was to craft a rigorous examination of the artist’s work, not to regurgitate the artist and her editor’s views. There is a difference between analysis and a press release.

After an art historian friend urged me to send the essay to another publication I decided to pitch the article — in its original form and without detailing the Aperture rejection — to Frieze. Dan Fox, the magazine’s co-editor, expressed interest, so I sent it on. Within a couple of weeks, he accepted the submitted piece, calling it “absolutely brilliant.” Fox quickly assigned the essay to Frieze and Frieze Masters editor Jennifer Higgie, with whom I had previously worked. By early September, the essay was ready for publication, and Frieze requested high-resolution images from the Rhona Hoffman Gallery, which represents the artist.

Lawson, through her gallery, balked at providing images for the essay. The gallery commented,

Steven Nelson was commissioned to write an essay for Deana’s upcoming Aperture monograph, and after the essay was written it was decided to not publish Steve [sic.] Nelson’s writing. This was because Mr. Nelson interpreted Deana’s work through the lens of her piece for Time Magazine, and Deana’s editorial/commercial work is separate from her fine art practice.

After reading this response, I couldn’t help but think that Lawson and her gallerist worried that my focus on the Time photographs might reduce the economic value of what they consider to be her fine art images.

Higgie immediately wrote to me on the matter, and shortly after I confirmed that this is, in fact, the essay rejected by Aperture, Frieze killed it. Frieze, according to Higgie, did not feel comfortable publishing an artist essay without having accompanying images. Furthermore (and Higgie didn’t state this explicitly), the Frieze editors, despite describing my essay as brilliant, were annoyed not to have had the first bite at the apple. (Submitting an essay to another venue after a rejection is common practice in both mainstream journalism and academic writing.)

The actions of Lawson, Aperture, and Frieze raise critical questions about the relationship between living artists and scholarly, critical apparatuses. Do artists understand the clear benefits of myriad views of their work? Is it possible that Lawson and those who would serve as her makeshift publicists are not the best interlocutors for her work? I was an artist and graphic designer before I became an art historian. Even decades after making my professional shift I know that I am not the best interpreter of my visual work.

Such rejections also bring up questions about the editor’s relationship to both artist and writer. Who should have the final word on the writer’s creative work? Despite the protestation of the artist, critics and scholars often provide important insights that change how we understand an artist and her oeuvre. A wonderful case in point is Michael Lobel’s essay on Richard Prince’s early work. Not acquiescing to Prince’s disavowal of his early production, the art historian wrote the piece he wanted to write, and the Neuberger Museum, which published the catalog, supported Lobel’s endeavor. The final essay appears with holes where the artist’s images would have been. We should do things like this more often.

Lawson, Wattenberg, and the Rhona Hoffman Gallery swear up and down that the Time pictures are not part of the artist’s work in “fine art photography,” yet in Aperture’s “Vision & Justice” issue, the artist had this to say about them:

I don’t know if the subjects will ever see this reprint in Aperture. But I think the families would be really proud to know that their stories are being written about again, not only in the world of news reportage, but also in fine art photography (emphasis mine).

When researching and writing my original essay, this comment provided a beautiful entry into Lawson’s work. With the benefit of hindsight, when it comes to the Time pictures it’s clear that Lawson wants to have it both ways.

Versions of Lawson’s behavior towards my essay happen all the time. Many friends and colleagues have stories about a piece that was killed because a living artist took issue with some aspect of it. One colleague even went as far to suggest that we should edit an anthology of essays killed because of the protestations of artists. Others suggested that I should stop writing on living artists.

In such a potential minefield, what possibilities remain for academic writing and criticism on the work of living artists (and deceased ones with overly involved estates) when she can register disapproval and silence our work through her curator or editor, or through the withholding of image permissions?  Perhaps more chilling: might our concern with gaining an artist’s authorization discourage the most rigorous engagements with their work?

Hrag Vartanian, “Some images by Deanna Lawson we’re not allowed to discuss as ‘fine art'” (2018) (gif courtesy Hrag Vartanian)

Update, June 5, 2018, 3:00pm EDT: We received the following email from Jennifer Higgie, editorial director of Frieze magazine:

For the record: as editorial policy, frieze does not accept copy that has been commissioned by another publication. At no point did Steven Nelson disclose that his feature on Deana Lawson’s photographs had been commissioned by Aperture and then rejected. We only discovered this when Deana Lawson’s images were requested from Rhona Hoffman gallery, at which point Steven explained the provenance of the article and we withdrew it from publication.

Neither Steven’s approach to Lawson’s work nor the gallery or artist’s position factored into our decision. We have a long history of publishing critical and even contentious articles. But we do assume that our contributors will be forthright with our contributing editors about the provenance of the piece they are proposing.


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