Deana Lawson on display a the High Museum of Art, photographs by Isadora Pennington

“Deana is one of the most exciting photographers working today,” said Assistant Curator of Photography Maria Kelly. The exhibition is the first museum survey of Lawson’s work, and showcases 58 works produced over the past two decades. The pictures are large, with figures that are nearly full-size who often gaze out confidently toward the viewer. “Her works straddle the line between photography and contemporary art.” 

Lawson is an artist and educator based in Brooklyn, New York, and her works are known to explore topics of intimacy, family, spirituality, sexuality, Black culture and identity. She has won numerous awards including the Hugo Boss Prize in 2020 for achievements in contemporary art. This show comes to Atlanta from ICA Boston and MoMA PS and PS1 and is the last stop on this collection’s tour. The High Museum of Art has been on the list waiting for this opportunity for at least two years, which was plenty of time to build anticipation and excitement. 

This show is unlike many other photography exhibitions that have been shown at the High Museum of Art. Not only are there crystals in corners of the space which have been positioned there to “keep the energy right” but also “clouds” of 4×6 prints from pop culture, history, and Lawson’s own family. In one smaller room a film is projected on the wall, with found footage juxtaposed with chanting music, and on the wall is a hologram that is so convincing it can actually trick viewers into thinking the glass is revealing a hole in the wall. 

Assistant Curator of Photography Maria Kelly

Kelly pointed out the expressions on the subjects in these images that look back at the viewer through the glass. “It doesn’t really allow you to be a passive voyeur of the images,” explained Kelly. “We think of photography as us looking at it, not it looking at us. With these images it’s very much an encounter with the person who is in the portrait and I think that’s important.”

There is a pervasive sense of the importance of family and lineage in Lawson’s works. Showing the intimate inner worlds of her subjects they invite viewers to stop and linger, taking in the number of details captured by her large format camera. “You can kind of get lost in these images with everything you can see and read,” continued Kelly. “You have to really come in to experience it in person. You can see these works online, but seeing it in person is such a different revelatory experience.” 

Deana Lawson is on display at the High Museum through Feb. 19, 2023.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.