Alum’s Powerful Portraits Now at MoMA

Alum’s Powerful Portraits Now at MoMA

There’s an inherent tension in the photographsDeana Lawson MFA 04 PH is currently showing at MoMA. On the one hand, the direct gaze of the people in her large-scale portraits suggests intimacy or confrontation. On the other, through her painstaking compositions, Lawson imbues her subjects with a different kind of electric charge: They radiate enormous personality along with compelling social history.

In New Photography: 2011, a group exhibition on view through January 16, 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, seven of her pieces are featured along with the work of five other emerging photographers from the UK, China, Canada and the Netherlands as well as the US.

In Lawson’s arresting, almost painterly portraits, viewers are invited into the worlds of subjects she often refers to as “family,” though they are often strangers she has met in a club lounge or at the grocery store: a73-year-old diva, surrounded by framed paintings and nearly nude beneath a salon chandelier; a scantily clad young woman contorted in half in a photo simply calledFlex.

Known for composing almost every element of her shots, Lawson often sketches scenes on paper before she ever picks up a camera. In her desire to show the limitless expressions of the human body, she always keeps the formal language of photography and portraiture very much in mind.

In an interview withTime Out New York, Lawson describes her work as addressing “multiple layers of history” – layers that often conflict and may never be fully reconciled. She notes that she focuses on two major aspects of each subject: “internal history and external history. The first is the personal, familial and psychological experience of the subject and director – myself. The second, all of the things (culture, art, politics, philosophy) that exist outside the body, and which neither the subject nor [I] have any say in, but still affect us. One of the most difficult things to navigate for any person is to reconcile their own state of being with past experiences and historical baggage.”

Now based in Brooklyn, Lawson has shown her work at the Studio Museum in Harlem and P.S. 122, among other venues, and in such publications as in Time Out NY, Artnet, Contact Sheet and Photography Quarterly. She has been recognized with an Aaron Siskind Fellowship, a grant from the Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, and a grant from the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has also held artist’s residencies at Light Work, Visual Studies Workshop and the Photography Institute at Columbia University.

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