Home Truth: What Does Deana Lawson’s Staged Family Image Really Say?

The US photographer’s Christmas shot questions the conventions of these festive fictions by hinting at a wider story.

Deana Lawson, Coulson Family, 2008. Courtesy the artist and MACK

Deana Lawson often shoots strangers or acquaintances as family or lovers, casting roles like a director before exploring the chosen theme. The New York-born photographer exists comfortably in the resulting ambiguity, her images an exploration of the relationship between physicality and symbolism which gives in to neither. Couples embrace in a kitchen with a borrowed veneer of domesticity; lovers inhabit their roles only temporarily, their performances immortalised in Lawson’s frame.

Children often denote a departure from this technique: the named family here signalling the artist’s embrace of history, and a deeper interpersonal commentary. In this image the Coulson family adopt a standard Christmas pose within family portraiture, the artificial tree occupying the space where a fourth member might stand (in Young Grandmother, an empty chair set to the side of the central figures creates a similar effect). Lawson’s interiors are an extension of her human choreography: the walls’ new coat of paint remains unfinished, while stacks of DVDs and picture frames suggest a bustling home life.

“People claim that Lawson’s studies show Black people as they’ve never been seen before, while simultaneously praising their everyday relatability”

Writing in The New Yorker, critic Doreen St Félix describes the “nervous praise,” that Lawson’s work elicits, whereby people claim that her studies show Black people as they’ve never been seen before, while simultaneously praising their everyday relatability. The theme of motherhood is abundant in Lawson’s work, the rawness and relationship with eroticism perhaps prompting such declarations about her pioneering style. Coulson Family explores something warmer and more archetypically innocent, although Lawson’s careful choreography intends to question and expand these fixed descriptions at every turn.

Ravi Ghosh is Elephant’s editorial assistant


Deana Lawson

ICA, Boston, until 27 February 2022

Exhibition accompanied by Deana Lawson, ed. Peter Eeley and Eva Respini (MACK)