An artist whose staged portraits reflect the language of the family photo album has won one of the most prestigious prizes in photography, with judges saying her work “reframes and reclaims the black experience”.
Deana Lawson from Rochester, New York, was awarded the £30,000 Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize 2022 at the Photographers’ Gallery in London for her solo exhibition Centropy, held at Kunsthalle Basel two years ago.
Brett Rogers, the director of the Photographers’ Gallery and chair of the Deutsche Börse jury, praised Lawson’s inventiveness and the complexity of her approach to image making.
“Her work, which reframes and reclaims the black experience, harnesses the traditional and the experimental and opens up a very unique connection between the everyday and the mystical,” she said.
“Her subject matter sits somewhere between the ‘here and now’ and the past, a person and a people, the staged and the naturalistic, in a manner which is not didactic or issue-driven, but genuinely radical. The boldness of her vision and the empowered sensibility she brings to her protagonists is clearly the result of a carefully nuanced collaboration with her cast of ‘family’ members, which places her in a rare position of partner or narrator rather than auteur.”
Lawson is renowned for her intimate staged portraits that explore intergenerational relationships and their effects within black culture. They reflect tropes from documentary photography and art history as well as the language of the family photo album.
She frequently positions women as central protagonists, alongside the presence of elders, totemic male figures and symbolic archetypal characters, such as the celestial child. The images depict familiar domestic settings but contain some unsettling element – what the artist calls portals into other worlds, or portrayals of death or birth.
Visitors are introduced to what Lawson calls her “ever-expanding mythological family”.
Anne-Marie Beckmann, the director of the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation, said that while Lawson was grounded in the traditions of photography and in many ways quite classical, her images offered up new possibilities for the medium and its reception.
“Interrogating the position of the black body in visual culture and playing with tropes such as family portraiture, artifice and nature, she takes the personal and makes it political, forcing an often unsettling contemplation of how and what we see.”
The presentation at The Photographers’ Gallery marks Lawson’s first institutional show in the UK. The jury also acknowledged the work of the other shortlisted artists – Anastasia Samoylova, Gilles Peress and Jo Ractliffe.