A Q&A with legendary photographer Deana Lawson
As she releases a new monograph, the artist talks Sade, Studio Ghibli and Toni Morrison.
This story originally appeared in i-D’s The Darker Issue, no. 365, Winter 2021. Order your copy here.
In Sonia Sanchez’ poem Blk/Rhetoric, she asks:
who’s gonna make all this beautiful blk/rhetoric mean something. like i mean who’s gonna take the words blk/is/beautiful and make more of it than blk/capitalism. u dig?
This poem comes to mind when I think of Deana Lawson’s photographs.
What they do, and what I think differentiates them from so much of the mere cashing in (or would that be cashing out?) so many contemporary cultural workers of all races are guilty of. This misperception when they churn out products that claim to be about Black people, Black culture and Black life.
Maybe it’s the way the eyes of so many of her subjects hold you, the way they reach through the lens, time, space and upend what you thought you knew. The way their eyes force your eyes to recalibrate and take in everything in the frame with a thoughtfulness and level of consideration that is still rare when it comes to how the world really sees Black.
**Hey Deana, I know you’re swamped so these questions are meant to be light and fun.
Okay, here we go. If you were hosting a dinner party of your favourite female artists from the past, who would get the invite?
I’m going to take the liberty of also inviting writers and creative thinkers. The first would be Octavia Butler. Another would be Tiye, the mother of Akhenaten and the grandmother of Tutankhamun. Diane Arbus, Hilma Af Klint, and Peseshet. Peseshet was a chief physician in ancient Egypt. Marie Laveau. I'm curious about Bathsheba. I was always taken by the biblical story about Bathsheba, King David's wife. I'd want to include her at that table. And Toni Morrison. We can’t forget her.
**Can I be the server?
**You most certainly can.
Next question: You're in a bit of a funk. Your closest friend who knows you better than anybody else sends you a gift to lift your spirits. What would that gift be?
A crystal. Or maybe a nice pair of gloves. Or a book. Any of those three.
**What’s the last film that made you cry?
**Last film that made me cry? Oh, The Tale of Princess Kaguya.
**That’s one of my favourite Studio Ghibli films. It’s sublime. Is success anything like you imagined it would be?
**I’m blessed to have achieved success, but it’s not as breezy as I imagined. I’ve become busier which at times feels like a distraction from the creative process. Success and visibility is vulnerability, especially in the age of social media. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Even though I’ve had a great deal of success, there’s still so much work to be done.
**It can be both invasive and extractive.
**Certainly, artists in the 30s or 40s or 50s and 60s had more privacy. It was so different. That's one thing I’ve noticed.
Is there a book, film, album, or any work of art that’s the equivalent of comfort food for you? Something you return to?
Toni Morrison. When I want to fall into a piece of writing and be stirred emotionally and spiritually, to admire someone's craft for storytelling and image-making, she is definitely it for me.
**What might be some things you take from Ms. Morrison to help you do what you do?
**I think specificity is very important. Her ability to be dual, to represent lightness and darkness, is phenomenal. So is her ability to tap deeply into the imagination, and another person's psyche. Because when you read her stories, she’s able to represent the psyche of so many different characters; not just women, but men, white, Black. There's something powerful about being able to really go into the body of another person, in a way. That's what I admire about her work. There's wisdom to it. She’s someone who has carefully paid attention to the nuances of how people move and operate, how relationships operate, and how power works. Yeah.
**She's attuned to the nuts and bolts of everyday life. And ironically – or paradoxically, or whatever – that’s what also gives her work this otherworldly dimension at the same time. You feel like you're entering the realm of the supernatural. You feel like you're in this transcendent zone when you're reading her work.
**Absolutely. There'll be the most subtle line, but the way she describes something, not only the moment she's talking of but the language she uses to describe it, is eternal. Familiar.
**Do you listen to music while you work at all?
**I do all the time, and it ranges. It depends on the mood I'm in. It could be the Black Orpheus soundtrack, Wu-Tang, Nina Simone, Nas, Bjork or Sade. Recently I’ve been travelling down a rabbit hole listening to Westside Gunn, Hitler Wears Hermes 8, Side B.
**You know, one of the questions I had for you was, “What's your favourite Sade song?”, because something said to me that you’d be a Sade fan.
**Oh, okay. No Ordinary Love, but also Jezebel, too.
**When would you say you're happiest?
**I'm happiest when I’ve brought a new picture into existence. I'm happy when I go on road trips and camping with my family. I’m happiest when different parts of my life are aligned to the earth and Creator.
**What's a talent you wished you had?
**I wish I could dance better.
Name a trait you inherited from your parents that is a gift.
Being able to cook. Knowing how to season stuff right and how to fry chicken and catfish. I would say that's probably one of my favourite gifts from my parents.
For one night you're able to step back in time and visit a New York jazz club. Who is the headliner?
Oh, you know it’s Miles Davis. You know I would love to see that brother in person.
Is there a spiritual saying or motto that you have as a kind of touchstone?Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.
Oh, that's great. Okay, here’s the lightning round. Kindle or physical book?Physical.
Favourite hip-hop track? An impossible question, I know.
The Boogie Man Song by Mos Def.
**Sweet potato pie.
**The correct answer. Favourite camera?
**And you might be too young for this one, but Fat Luther or Skinny Luther?
**Oh, Fat Luther. For real. I am not too young for that. Everybody had a Luther Vandross song at their weddings in the 90s.
**East coast folks always talk about how much they hate LA. What's one thing about LA that you actually like?
**Sunshine, oh my goodness, even though it's a double-edged sword with the droughts, but the sun is so beautiful.
**Okay, that's it.
**This was the funnest interview.
Oh good. I was like, she's either going to think this is the most inane, insipid interview ever…
Not at all. I've been waiting for someone to do an interview like this. Do you have one more question?
**Yeah, actually. I was watching some of your talks on Youtube and seeing all the different places you've travelled to – Jamaica, Haiti and DR Congo among others – I was wondering if, given how grim the news often is about Haiti, and the fact that you've worked and travelled there, what is a beautiful memory or experience you have of it? Something in contrast to the grimness we so get in the news about Haiti?
**I've seen some of the most incredible art and sculpture of my life in Haiti. The creative genius there is so raw, and can be seen in so many forms and is connected to a spiritual plane. I really want to go back. I’ve been wanting to go back. With everything going on though, I just thought it good to wait awhile, but yeah.
[Deana’s phone rings.] Okay Ernest, I think I have to jump off now. I've got a call that I have to take.
**Thank you so much for doing this. I really enjoyed it.
**Thank you Ernest. Thank you again. And hopefully we'll meet in person one day.
‘Deana Lawson’ (2021) ed. by Peter Eeley and Eva Respini published by MACK is out now.
(Portraits of Deana)
Photography Steven Traylor
Fashion Tamia Mathis
Hair Nikki Nelms (Deana Lawson)
Make-up Sara Tagaloa using M.A.C Cosmetics
Photography assistance Harris Mizrahi and Joshua Elan
Fashion assistance Armando Armenta and Chanti Walker
Make-up assistance Anna Kato
Production Camera Club
Special thanks Sunhaus, The Forge, Icon LA, Chroma Center, Karis Dolberry and Jil Sander
Casting director Samuel Ellis Scheinman for DMCASTING