FANS OF RIHANNA will be thrilled to see her on another magazine cover. This latest one is photographed by Deana Lawson, a black female artist with a distinct approach to capturing her subjects, usually ordinary people in their everyday surroundings. Admirers of Lawson will be doubly appreciative. Garage Issue 15 is manna for Lawson devotees. She not only photographed Rihanna, marking her first fashion shoot, inside the magazine she engages in an expansive conversation about her life and work with artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa. The first question he poses is “What’s your origin story?”

Lawson says she grew up working class in Rochester, N.Y., and talks at length about her extended family, economic background, and finding photography. After a few exchanges, Jafa asks Lawson how she feels about “the question of destiny.” She says, “I believe in destiny, and I know I was destined to be an artist with a camera. It all adds up: my grandmother who worked for George Eastman, my mother who was a secretary at Kodak, my aunt who helps people ‘see’ (she was an ophthalmologist), my father who was the family photographer…how could it not be destiny?”

“I believe in destiny, and I know I was destined to be an artist with a camera.” — Deana Lawson

Issue 15 is dedicated to the “human future.” Garage Editor in Chief Mark Guiducci describes the project as “concentrating on the ways in which creative people are affirming the relevance of humanity while reckoning with both its precarious situation and mortal flaws. It’s an affirmation of faith in ourselves and our power.”

The issue is special in a number of respects. First, there’s a contribution from late author Octavia Butler. In an essay originally published in 1980, Butler asks, “Why Is Science Fiction So White?”

In addition, all of the photographers featured in Issue 15 are women and several, including Ruth Ossai, Nadine Ijewere, Flo Ngala, and Lawson, are of African-descent.

Garage also published a crib sheet on Lawson titled “10 Things We Love (And You Need To Know) About Deana Lawson.” Largely drawn from her conversation with Jafa, the brief biography notes she has a twin sister, earned a BFA from Pennsylvania State University, and was admitted to the Rhode Island School of Design, where she got her MFA in photography, on the merits of a tight shot of vintage high heels.

A respected cinematographer, Jafa had stepped back from the world of fine art for more than a dozen years. He returned in 2016, to participate in the Made in L.A. biennial. Then, after soft screening his seven-minute video “Love Is the Message, The Message Is Death” at the Underground Museum, he officially debuted it at Gavin Brown’s Enterprise in Harlem. The video is a visual anthology of the African American experience. Black people love it and the critical response has been beyond enthusiastic. Museums around the world have presented the video and many have acquired it for their permanent collections.

Both Jafa and Lawson are concerned with agency, who gets seen and has value. For Garage, Lawson talked with Jafa about many aspects of her practice, including how she selects the people she photographs, delegating during a photo shoot, and the first time she knew she had made an exceptional image:

    On choosing her subjects
    LAWSON: When I’m going out to make work, usually I’m choosing people that come from a lower- or working-class situation. My choice feels natural because it’s a reflection of the people and forces I grew up around in Rochester. I’m choosing people around the neighborhood: near public transportation, in beauty supply shops, fried-chicken spots, nightclubs, Family Dollar, churches, et cetera. It’s about value. It’s about using a figure or a body to represent something higher than we would normally associate it with.

    On the role her longtime friend plays on photo shoots
    LAWSON: Yes, that’s my best friend, Dana Brown, who I’ve known since third grade, and travel with on photo road trips.

    When it comes to photographing a subject, I’m more quiet and demure, and I’m trying to figure stuff out. Dana is more pragmatic. With the image Nikki’s Kitchen, for instance, we had arrived, and I had this bodysuit, and I asked Nikki to try on the bodysuit. She went upstairs, she came back down, she didn’t have it on. She said, “I’m not wearing this; it’s too small; I’m wearing what I have on.” In my mind, the whole photo shoot was centered around this leopard bodysuit in the kitchen. I had no idea what to do or say in that moment. But I gave Dana a look from across the room, and she understood, because we’ve known each other for so long. I mumbled to her, “Can you figure out how to have her put this bodysuit on?”

    So Nikki came back down, and Dana was like, “Okay, you should put this on, because we’re going to cut out the feet,” and dah-da-dah, dah-da-dah, but it was the way she said it—Dana’s father was a preacher, so Dana kind of talks like a preacher; she’s got this voice to her. And Nikki listened and it worked! I don’t think I could have negotiated that in that situation.

    On her first successful photo
    LAWSON: I know very clearly what that photo is—a picture I made in 2001. I found these two-and-a-half-inch vintage heels from a thrift shop. I put the model in a lilac-colored dress and these heels, and we went on these tattered steps, and I asked her to slant to the side to look as if the heels were bending, and I photographed the calves and the feet from the back. That was the image that got me into grad school at the Rhode Island School of Design. There was history and suffering in those feet, as seen through the slant in the heels. It was that picture where I knew that there was much to be explored. Just that gesture of those heels broken down, but still classy and sophisticated, was kind of like the theater, or the ideal-slash-reality, and the pain that I wanted to express through the body. All of those elements are present in my work to this day.



FIND MORE The full conversation between Lawson and Jafa appears in her new book, “Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph.” Garage published an exclusive excerpt from the interview.


TOP IMAGE: Rihanna photographed by Deana Lawson for Garage Magazine


DEANA LAWSON, “Nikki’s Kitchen,” 2015. | © Deana Lawson, courtesy Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago


Published this month, “Deana Lawson: An Aperture Monograph,” includes an essay by British author Zadie Smith and an insightful interview with Lawson conducted by artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa. Lawson was featured in the “Whitney Biennial 2017,” where her large-format photographs were displayed in the same gallery as her friend, the Los Angeles-based painter Henry Taylor. “Contact Sheet 154: Corporeal,” an earlier volume from 2009, also documents Lawson’s work.


Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is an independent editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.