Against Illusionism

Article main image

“Art functions by creating highly visible exceptions to the status quo,” Renzo Martens writes, “placing love, critique, and singularity outside the circle of exploitation and violence. […] While war and economic segregation pay the bills, love, critique, and singularity are reserved for the audiences of the white cube. Providing this exception for an audience that already lives the beautiful exception is not critical; it is make belief. Illusionism.” (quoted from: Renzo Martens: Art for the Post-Plantation, in: Critique in Practice: Renzo Martens’ Episode III: Enjoy Poverty, ed. Anthony Downey, Sternberg Press, 2019, p. 330)

The world of the photobook is not one we associate with the white cube — photobooks are typically enjoyed in the privacy of one’s home. Yet it is not hard to think of a photobooks bringing the white-cube mindset to people’s homes, one book at a time. We might replace a few words in Martens’ statement — “photobooks” for “art,” say, to arrive at a valid and searing indictment of much of what ills the world of the photobook as well.

Most photobooks dabble in illusionism.

This illusionism is caked into the larger world of art, of which photoland has become a niche. Things are said and shown one way, yet they really mean something entirely different when seen in the contexts in which they are made to appear.

The very first advertising in the most recent edition of Aperture‘s magazine (#245), a colourful double-page spread, presents Gucci, the luxury fashion house. Assorted other luxury brands (incl. Leica) follow. So when viewers then see a photograph by William Camargo entitled We Gonna Have to Move Out Soon Fam! (Anaheim, 2019), showing a person holding a large sign that says “THIS AREA WILL GENTRIFY SOON”, what are they supposed to make of it?

Of course, this is a Gedankenexperiment on my part, because the ads don’t target the likes of me who begrudgingly shop at Walmart, given their limited economic options.

What does the latter have to do with the former? Martens explains: “If art takes responsibility for its entanglement with circuits of capital and exploitation, then it goes beyond the production and display of mere images.” (ibid.)


How would you go about your “entanglement with circuits of capital and exploitation”? For sure, it’s not by making photobooks with over one thousand images that sell for hundreds of dollars or Euros, that, in other words, are luxury objects themselves.

“The photobook world is in danger of imploding,” Russet Lederman told me a little while ago, “It’s a niche community and very insular.” If photographers and publishers make books for other photographers and wealthy collectors, but not for the people who find themselves in the pictures, then it seems obvious that we’re facing a very serious problem.

In fact, the problem is widely acknowledged by photographers and publishers themselves, given that the market for these books is stagnant at best. But it’s just so hard to get out of the white cube.

Or is it?

After Poland’s far-right government managed to hijack the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, said Tribunal ruled that existing abortion laws were unconstitutional, essentially outlawing abortion (this might sound familiar to Americans who are seeing this play out right now). Thousands of Polish people had already taken to the street in support of women’s reproductive rights; after the ruling, the country erupted in mass protests on a scale previously unseen.

A group of photographers, researchers, and activists got together to funnel their individual work into something larger: they named it the Archive of Public Protests (APP). Here are their names: Michał Adamski, Marta Bogdańska, Karolina Gembara, Łukasz Głowala, Agata Kubis, Michalina Kuczyńska, Marcin Kruk, Adam Lach, Alicja Lesiak, Rafał Milach, Joanna Musiał, Chris Niedenthal, Wojtek Radwański, Bartek Sadowski, Paweł Starzec, Karolina Sobel, Grzegorz Wełnicki, Dawid Zieliński.

On the website (and on social-media channels), their work is disseminated as a group effort. Furthermore, they produced a number of newspapers, all of which are available for download from the website (most of them are only in Polish; full disclosure: I contributed minor copy editing and translation services to the most recent issue). With very limited financial resources (some minor grants, some crowdfunding, some support from NGOs), the newspapers were produced and then distributed at the very locations where new visual material was being produced: at sites of demonstrations.

In addition to photographs, the newspapers feature slogans often seen at demonstrations; they’re designed in such a way that someone can take the newspaper apart and use a page as a banner at a demonstration. APP have gone out of their way to bring the newspapers to smaller Polish cities, deliberately reaching out of the Warsaw photo bubble.

“My photo book of the year is a protest choice,” writes Rob Hornstra, referring to APP’s work, “both within the world of photobooks and in the country where the work is made. My photobook of the year is a free newspaper.” Alas, on a bookseller’s website a free newspaper isn’t any good: “photo-eye and any photobook store cannot run a business by distributing free newspapers”. And so the newspapers didn’t make this list or any other (unless I missed it — entirely possible, given there now are dozens and dozens of them).

And neither did the 18 Polish photographers, researchers, and activists make the shortlists of the two major corporate photo prizes (one of those oversized tomes for wealthy collectors did, though). At least, they found recognition locally, in their native Poland, where thankfully their work is being recognized. Make sure to head over to Zachęta Online Magazine to see their faces and read their words.

Warsaw, 11 Dec 2021, “No human is illegal” march; photograph: Wojtek Radwański

If the Archive of Public Protests can teach us something beyond what it means to be a well-engaged citizen who embraces solidarity with others, then it’s that photoland’s illusionism is a choice and that rejecting it is an option, however arduous this might end up being (especially when faced with a relative paucity of resources — here is a related read: why does success have a paywall?).

The white cube might offer the comfort of a shared make belief. But in light of the increasing challenges faced by our societies, that’s just not good enough any longer — if (there’s that word again) we want to also maintain the comfort of the freedom that we currently still enjoy.

If that’s not enough of an incentive for you to break out of the niche community’s insularity, then go and ask any of the 18 Polish artists what it feels like to have a far-right government systematically trash civic life and the country’s democratic foundation, while taking away basic human rights from the women unfortunate enough to live under its rule and letting refugees starve and freeze to death in a forest.

A Conversation With Lina Scheynius

Article main image

I have been following Lina Scheynius‘ work for over a decade. I wasn’t active on Flickr when the site experienced its most active and widely used days (at the time, I was busy working on my blog). But I knew that she had built a very dedicated following there, from which resulted books and exhibitions.

Once everything moved over to Instagram, I became aware of Scheynius’ never ending struggle with that site. Her posts were getting removed, even though the bulk of her work didn’t even appear there. I had wanted to speak with her about this experience for a while. At the same time, focusing on the troubles with Instagram felt like taking away too much attention from the photography itself.

But now, Scheynius’ artist books have been re-published as a box set, and there is a brand new book. This seemed like the perfect opportunity for me to reach out and talk with her about the many aspects of her career. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jörg Colberg
You have a background in modeling and got into photography at some stage. How did this start?

Lina Scheynius
I was doing photography before, and then I started modeling. But I did photography continuously the whole time. I was really critical of how I was being photographed. So I started to do it like how I wanted it done. When I went home, I did my own shoots.

Your photography has always been very personal and diaristic. Can you talk about this a little bit?

I was influenced by Nan Goldin’s work. I think it was also through the fashion industry that I came in contact with it. And there was a book that Corinne Day had done called Diary, which somebody had shown me during shoots. They said: “this as the inspiration for this shoot.” I don’t know if you know, but on a fashion set, there’s often something that people are trying to copy. So I had come into contact with those two photographers. Nan Goldin is obviously still really important for me. I started to try and do work like they had done.

You make it sound so easy. But you kept at it and in 2008, you self published your first book.

But that was much later than when I discovered those photographers. I did everything just on my own. I didn’t show it to anyone. I just had it on my bedroom wall. In 2006, I started to show something.

“Untitled” (2016) from the Diary series

How did you decide that given you had all these pictures you’re now going show them to people. I would imagine that’s a big step.

It was mad.

It’s so bold.

I don’t know why I didn’t show them before. I think I was too shy to show my pictures to people. I couldn’t even imagine that people wanted to see them. I didn’t think that I would bring these photos to anyone to look at.

At the time, the internet was becoming bigger, and I found Flickr. I don’t even remember their names now, but I found some people who posted intimate work on Flickr. And I thought, okay, I’m going to try and post something and see how it goes. I thought it would stay small. I didn’t imagine that my parents would end up seeing it or that it would be in a newspaper for millions of people to see. [laughs] I didn’t imagine what scale it would get. At the time, I don’t think people knew, either. One thing then led to another.

So you built a community of followers on Flickr, made the first book, and it grew from there?

Yeah. But it had already grown quite far for me to dare to make a book. I didn’t just make a book. I made a book once I knew that people wanted a book. So it was already quite big. It happened quite fast: the first jump, or whatever you want to call it.

You then made a number of books, which were recently re-released as a box set. What did you learn when you made them? You had more and more experience making your own pictures, and there was an audience. Did that change anything for you photographing? Or did you go about it organically?

For the first book, I was so careful to only include pictures I knew people liked. I did only Polaroids, self portraits. Looking back at it now, it’s quite commercial. But that’s how I went about it. I needed to sell the book because I didn’t have a lot of money. And it costs a lot of money to print a book. I did everything on my own. It sold out really fast. From then on I thought: “oh, okay, I can sell this”, and I became much bolder. I realised that I could put anything in the books, and people would buy them. That was amazing. That’s such a privileged position to be in.

“Untitled” (2015) from the Diary series

I don’t know how comfortable I would be to share so much of my private life. Was that ever an issue for you how do you approach it? It would be so difficult for me, and you’re doing it so boldly.

I can’t really explain what gives me that courage. Sometimes, it’s definitely wavering. I go through periods when I wonder why I have done this, thinking I should do less of it.

Around 2008, I was struggling to take pictures. When I looked through the viewfinder I could already anticipate a large audience behind me. So I would think: “Okay, I’m not going to take this picture. It’s too private.” I think I had to learn to take pictures and hold them back for myself.

I think I’m learning that now again because of Instagram. There, I’m not enjoying sharing so much. I like how I started out, doing things and keeping them in a drawer. Without question. But I don’t know if I would recommend anyone to do it.

Do you ever look at your work and think, I can’t I did this? People appreciate it because I shared it? I mean, I’m a super critical person. When I look back at what I did, I dislike almost everything. But there are certain things where when I look at them I think: “Wow, I can’t believe I did this. I really still like it.”

Yeah, I’m definitely impressed with some of the things that the younger me has done. But it’s hard, especially with books. I self published the first 11. And technically I didn’t really know how to get the ultimate quality out of them. So often, when I would get them from the printer and think: “oh, I would change this.” But this time, with my new book, I’m so shocked. I can almost find nothing to change. I haven’t dared to look at it too much yet. But the quality is really amazing.

Spread from Touching (JBE Books, 2021)

The new book is an obvious change of pace, because it features double exposures, and it has a lot of text. Can you talk about how you decided that this is something you wanted to do?

I started doing a little bit of double exposures with flowers because I did a flower newspaper. I don’t know why I decided to try it with statues. I just did it with two rolls of film. Really interesting things started to happen. It was like the bodies were blending. So I continued.

The text is talking about this as well. I’ve done a little bit of toying with text before. In one of the books in the box set, there are diary entries that I’ve added. This was the first time that I wrote specifically for a book. But I wasn’t the first choice. The publisher and I thought, let’s try and get a well known author that I admire. But after a few months, we realised that we had to give up. But I had already had the idea before that I could write myself. And I am glad I did because it adds another layer to the work that I appreciate very much.

The texts are not traditional photo texts. It’s hard to explain. Some entries are from my diary, for example when I was sitting at the Louvre. There are some discussions about self portraiture and why I’ve done it.

Spread from Touching (JBE Books, 2021)

Blogging fell away quickly because of the arrival of social media. At the time, I didn’t really follow Flickr that much, but it seemed to fall away, too.

Yeah, it totally did.

I don’t know if that’s how you got to Instagram. But you ended up there, like pretty much everybody else. And then you ran into like a huge number of problems with the site.

I recently went back now to my Flickr. They didn’t display it at the time, but I have 30,000 followers there. That’s a lot of people, considering the time. It was so long ago. Flickr was really, really important for me. I could show my work completely uncensored. There was a filter and you were able to moderate yourself. Now I went back and sadly, it was like porn central.

Everything turns into porn central.

Tumblr as well, right?

I think so. On Instagram, you don’t set the rules. You got into a lot of problems and trouble because of the so-called community guidelines. Can you talk a little bit about your experience? I think it’s important for people to hear what this experience actually does to an artist.

“Untitled” (2013) from the Diary series

Well, it’s definitely hard to grow on a platform… It’s hard to show your work on a platform where you can’t show your work. A lot of the photos that are on Instagram are my flower series. And that’s nice, but that’s such a small portion of my work. Most of my work is not flowers.

Your work also isn’t pornographic so I don’t understand Instagram’s reaction.

It’s sexual. I have photos of a man with an erection; that could be considered pornographic. But I wouldn’t dare to post those photos on Instagram.

There is the Instagram issue with female versus male nipples, which is completely absurd.

I’ve had the idea to pixelate a man to post a man and pixelate his nipples.

You had photos removed that weren’t remotely sexual. The reasons were completely unclear why they would do that.

There was a lot of that.

And you were shadow banned, right?

Yeah. This means that people can’t find you. If you search for a name in the search function, it’s not going to come up.

Do you think this has affected your art making or you on a personal level?

“Untitled” (2015) from the Diary series

I definitely think it has affected the joy I feel with sharing the work. I also think that because the app is designed to be so addictive, that has also affected it as well. With Flicker or Tumblr, I went there to share the art work or to look at other people’s art. But on Instagram, there’s so much going on. It’s so fast paced, and there are so many heated discussions. You can get into a rabbit hole, and then half your day is gone.

Now you’ve moved to a different platform with your Substack mailing list. What is the idea and what might people see?

Maybe it’s like going back to blogging, even though I never did blogging. But it’s like private blogging with a very small readership who are all there because they’ve paid for it. It doesn’t feel like I’m going back to something that I’ve done before. It feels more like a new exploration. I post pictures that I haven’t shown anywhere before, and I write as well.

Do you see this as the activity online that you want to do and the way to show your work?

I don’t know. It’s really nice. I feel like the people are genuinely so supportive. It’s like a small, intimate room of people. But I don’t know if that’s all I want to do.

My Photo Books; photographs and text by Lina Scheynius; 11-book box set; essay by Joël Riff; 806 pages; JBE Books; 2019

Touching; photographs and text by Lina Scheynius; 88 pages; JBE Books; 2021

Against Neoliberal Dogma: Art And Creativity

Article main image

One of the worst aspects of living under neoliberal capitalism is to realise how far its underlying thinking has become an important part of our collective life. Social media have vastly amplified the importance of conforming to these ideas.

Personal responsibility is everything. In itself, there is much to be said for exercising a sense of personal responsibility. But personal responsibility without its necessary counterpoint in the form of communal and/or societal support is toxic. In the end, you’re responsible for everything, including, crucially, your failures — which you then have to deal with yourself.

In part as a consequence of all of this, there has been a proliferation of ideas of efficiency. A very cartoonish, yet widely accepted (and commercially very successful) example is provided by Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The book is little more than pseudo-scientific neoliberal ideology of the worst kind. But its ideas have become so common that we often don’t realize any longer how ubiquitous they are.

Obviously, I’m not going to suggest to you how to lead your life. If you want to, for example, buy yourself a smartwatch and monitor your habits, that’s fine with me. If you think that you need to use your time more efficiently, go for it. But I run into manifestations of neoliberal thinking regularly when teaching photography, and I thought it might be time to spell out how bad this really is if you want to become a photographer (or even an artist).

Let’s begin with the obvious: creativity cannot actually be quantified. The same is true for productivity. I’m pretty sure that there are people who will disagree. But if you think you can treat your creativity the way Amazon treats the supply chains inside its warehouses, you’re basically going to turn yourself into one of the people working inside such a warehouse. That is a very, very bad idea, which will create a lot of damage to your creativity and mental well being.

In my teaching, one of the biggest challenges students appear to run into is when or how to commit to doing something. More often than not, they have a lot of ideas. Having a lot of ideas isn’t a problem. But what do you do with them? As far as I can tell, there are two big problems.

The first problem is having to make a decision which idea to pursue. Often, students cannot decide what they want to do because too many ideas sound equally interesting: how can you pick one? Well, I can tell you how you pick one: you just do it. In the worst case, you could toss a coin or write ideas on slips of paper and pick one out of a hat (this is only for the ideas that are really interesting).

But isn’t that too flippant an approach to a serious problem? Well, no, because it actually is not a serious problem. If you’re stuck with too many ideas in a creative field, being unable to make a decision, the question is not: which idea is the best? Instead it is: why is it that you’re stuck there in the first place? In all likelihood, it is because you’re looking at the possible outcome more than at the actual idea and the process that might get you there. You’re worried that you will make something bad, so you don’t get started at all.

It is true, if you have two ideas and pick one, there is no guarantee that the outcome will be the best possible. But honestly: who cares? This obsession with only wanting to get the best is neoliberal ideology: only the real winners count. Everybody else is a loser.

The situation of not picking an idea can be found in the fable of Buridan’s ass. Now, you’re the donkey, and you’re starving your own creativity because you won’t get started on anything.

Neoliberal thinking also promotes the idea that everything has to conform to maximum efficiency. Again, how or why would you apply such an approach in a creative field? A priori you don’t even know what you’re going to run into. That is the very essence of being creative: to discover something, to allow oneself to be surprised. Maximum efficiency cuts out surprises (because they might waste time).

In the creative field the real outcome of anything you do is only partly provided by the end result. The process itself — that’s where the actual enjoyment (and frustrations) lie.

Social media make this fact very hard to see, because everybody only talks about outcomes (which obviously are always super successful). The struggles of the process and the inevitable failures remain hidden. Nobody wants to talk about that because in a neoliberal world, your public face depends on being seen as successful.

But creativity feeds on failure and on struggles a lot more than on the eventual success. The reality is that once you have finished a project (whatever it might be), you’re not learning anything from the fact that it’s done. It’s just done. This might feel great — this is not to diminish the sense of accomplishment that comes with it. But the exhilaration and of course frustration of the creative process happen a lot earlier.

The accomplishment isn’t just to have this finished thing (whatever it might be: a book, photo(s), sculpture, …). If you have gone through it, you know that it’s the fact of having seen yourself through this arduous process. The finished things — that’s just the cherry on top.

The creative process also is highly non-linear. You can’t plan it out. You don’t know how it is going to evolve. If you could plan things out, it wouldn’t be creative, would it? (Doing a paint-by-number painting isn’t creative.) Consequently, you cannot think of the creative process as being effective. That makes no sense. There’ll be a large number of dead ends, of things tried that don’t work out, of false starts, etc. That’s a huge part of it.

Following neoliberal thinking, it’s tempting to view false starts and dead ends in the creative process as inefficient: you could have planned things more carefully and spent your time more wisely. But if you follow such an approach that only shows how little you understand what creativity actually means. There is no such thing as wasted time in the creative process. Well, actually, there is: any time spent on not doing something is wasted.

I often hear students tell me that they’re thinking about making a picture. Usually, I ask what prevents them from just making it. Well, they tell me, they’re not sure how to do it or whether it will be successful. One of my (many) old records that then gets played is me saying that the only people who solve problems by thinking about them are philosophers and theorists.

In the creative process, you don’t think about doing something. Instead, you do it, and you see where this leads you. The process itself needs to show you as much as the picture itself. Photography is a visual medium, which means that you have to see it. You can’t just think about it. Again, there is no such thing as wasted time and energy. If you let a picture challenge yourself and guide you to something that works better, then you’re in business.

If there is one thing that you really want to concentrate on it’s your focus: show up regularly, and see things through. Those two aspects are literally the most important parts of the creative process. Everything else — the false starts, the surprises, the failures, the experiments, … Those aspects are essential for your creative process. They keep you on your toes, they keep you exhilarated, and they help you embrace something that is deep inside you on your own terms.

And you actually don’t have to produce and share something all the time. I realise that in the day and age of social media, that’s a strange statement: artists are now thought of as “content creators”. But is that really how you want to see yourself? As some sort of drone who puts out stuff every other day just to feed some machine that mostly does nothing for you (other than making you feel bad)? How is that a good idea?

Don’t allow other people to set your terms for you. Don’t see what you do with a critical neoliberal audience in mind. It’ll be the death of your creativity and artistic process, and it will only serve to make you feel very bad about yourself.

Deana Lawson

Article main image

Given that photography always has one foot in what you could think of as a reality, it often remains at the level of a semi-art. This is especially true in the case of the photographic portrait. I don’t necessarily mean the term “semi-art” in a negative way, because its underlying idea can cut both ways. But historically, because they were aware of photography’s foot in reality, photographers went the extra mile to make their wares look like what they think art ought to look like: this not only involved copying conventions from, say, painting, but also included making huge prints. Pictorialism arose out of this just as much what I ended up calling Neoliberal Realism.

On the other hand, even when photography manages to achieve the level of good art, its underlying nature pulls the viewer back to the fact that what is being depicted is taken from the real world. I suspect that this fact will remain true even once computer-generated images will occupy a space equal to that of camera-based ones: in the end, it’s not how the images were produced, it’s the combination of what they look like and what codes they telegraph that will drive the conversation.

Coming back to the portrait, there are two aspects that no photographer can run away from. There’s the aspect of power. And there’s the history of photography. These two aspects are not completely independent.

Someone has a camera, some other person does not: this sets up one of the most basic problems of photography. The person with the camera has the power. Even though they cannot do whatever they want — the other person might run away, grimace wildly, or try to put their hand in front of the camera, they have all the power over the photograph that goes out into the world. They pick the context in which it might appear, and they’re usually the first to set the parameters of the ensuing discussion around them (especially when photography criticism parrots PR copy).

Per se, this is not necessarily bad. After all, actors do what the script and directors tell them to do. Excepting those cases where actual abuse is happening, nobody has a problem with that. That is their job, to personify another person based on some pre-set parameters. Photographic portraiture can operate along those lines (think fashion or commercial photography).

But usually portrait photography in what’s typically called a fine-art context doesn’t operate this way. Often, photographers come across people they want to take a picture of by chance. Or they seek out a certain type of person. Thus begins the complex negotiation over power that involves question of consent and much more. Large parts are often left unspoken. Photographers know how their cameras operate and what they can do with them. People who aren’t photographers typically only understand this to a limited extent (even when they’re using their smartphones to take pictures).

This relationship is skewed in just the same way that your relationship with your dentist is skewed, or your relationship with your florist, your barber… You get the idea: someone is an expert and has a lot of practical and theoretical knowledge, and the other person decides to trust them (what happens when people don’t rely on that trust is currently playing out in ICUs all over the world).

Practical knowledge means that a photographer knows what the picture will look like in a basic sense. What they don’t know — all the interesting details: that’s what they’re after. Theoretical knowledge means that a photographer is aware of the medium’s history. They know who came before them and what those photographers did. They know — or at least they should know — the full spectrum of their craft, including the conversations that those older pictures have spawned.

As a result, portrait photographers have to deal with a responsibility that is set by their medium: to a certain extent, those that came before you boxed you in. All those portraits that already exist give you a set of constraints to work with — or against.

I’d argue that as a photographer, it’s important to navigate the constraints. To begin with, you’d be in dialogue both with the history of your medium and the conversations people are having right now. But you could also serve as a corrective, as someone who nudges the photographic conversation towards previously uncharted territory. After all, in the arts, constraints can be moved (without that possibility you’re left with mere craft).

In other words, photographic constraints both limit and expand what you can do.

This brings me to Deana Lawson and a new survey of her work. The biographical essay in the book, written by curator Eva Respini, lists a number of artists who served as references for Lawson, some to be expected, some surprising. And yet the artist who is echoed most strongly in these photographs is missing: Chauncey Hare, in particular his photographs of people in their own homes. I sense a similar sensibility at play, even as there are, of course, major differences.

Lawson’s subjects are Black, and the photographs that hold my attention are taken in what look like their homes. Through photographic choices, these homes are transformed into stages that feel at least somewhat alien to the sitter(s). The use of specific poses serves to heighten the drama of the stage, while at the same time giving the sitter(s) power: whatever a viewer might make of their surroundings, the feeling is communicated that the resulting picture is made for the sitter(s), that the picture says something about them — and not the photographer.

But this kind of thinking is a trap. After all, it is widely known how careful Lawson arranges the settings and the poses. I think for someone from the world of photography, this is very obvious. Someone who is not familiar with technical details might simply pick up on what I would describe as the photograph’s artifice: they typically look as if they were designed to look like paintings.

“Deana Lawson’s work is prelapsarian—it comes before the Fall,” Zadie Smith writes in New Yorker magazine, “Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look […] Typically, she photographs her subjects semi-nude or naked, and in cramped domestic spaces, yet they rarely look either vulnerable or confined. […]  Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.”

A very different take is provided by In ‘Axis’ and other pieces […], I could not find any of the earned intimacy that pointed to the artist’s own personal experience or long-term communal investment in most of what she was depicting.”

I don’t think these two sentiments are as much in opposition as one might be tempted to think. In fact, I’d argue that aspects of both pervade Lawson’s work. The photographs are aspirational and celebratory. But they operate on a very, very thin line, which easily allows for a read that questions whose aspirations are actually being celebrated here — the photographer’s or her subjects’?

This is not a new discussion in the world of photography. Speaking of the “big-dick energy power dynamics of White male artists” that Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw brings up in her essay (a marvelous phrase that sums up so much!), when Richard Avedon photographed underprivileged people for In the American West, to then showcase massive prints in galleries and museums — what was he actually celebrating there?

I don’t think that past discussions of this topic have been as enlightening as they maybe should have been, in particular since the art world is not very good at dealing with questions of class. This is not surprising, given that the art world’s class composition is very heavily skewed towards the wealthy end.

This is why Chauncey Hare is such an interesting reference. Hare’s approach was a little different. There was no careful staging. What’s more, his interiors turn ever more cavernous through the use of a very wide lens, leaving his sitters often lost and overwhelmed by their surroundings. But I would argue that there is considerable overlap in the underlying idea, namely that it’s a photographer’s task to give dignity to those s/he portrays so that through the picture an audience might come to a deeper understanding of them.

Hare was very open about his political beliefs. In 1979, he staged a one-person protest outside of SFMOMA, objecting to the inclusion of one of his photographs in a show that had been sponsored by Philip Morris. He really wanted people to see underprivileged people in their homes so that there might be some change, and he objected to this goal being pushed with money from the corporation. Obviously, it’s more than unclear whether photographs in a museum can actually achieve that goal, whether it’s sponsored by corporations or not. In fact, he ended up leaving the art world altogether (this article talks about this in detail).

What is more, if you photograph people in their homes with tools they don’t really understand — it’s very obvious from some of Hare’s photographs that some of his subjects never thought they would be in the frame, then it’s a fair question to ask how that gels with your politics: is photographic exploitation any better than the economic one?

I see Lawson as pushing the conversation initiated by Hare forward, while at the same time working toward a similar goal: to make people care about a community that historically has been depicted in very detrimental ways. For both artists, this opens up the same conundrum, namely that given the context the work mostly appears in (museums, books such as this catalogue), Zadie Smith’s read competes with Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw’s.

Looking through the book, I found myself jumping back and forth between these poles. I am a white German man, and I have been thinking a lot about embedded codes in photography. There’s no doubt in my mind that both facts guide my reaction to the work. To focus too much on the artifice of the work runs the risk of missing its point. Still, it is the role that artifice plays in individual pictures that in each case has me tip towards one side or the other.

For the most part, it is the photographs of romantic partners that I find  particularly striking. They often include the full spectrum of sexuality in a single picture: an embrace might hint at the tenderness of a first touch as much as at its later carnality. In contrast, pictures like Axis had me wonder about whether the photographer’s aspirations with the picture and the resulting outcome really were aligned very well.

As much as I appreciate seeing the wider spectrum of Lawson’s work in the book, it is the concentrated interior portraits that I keep coming back to. Time and again, I’m discovering new details even as the details might make me question what I really respond to. These might be an assortment of remote controls that appear carelessly scattered next to a sitter; an ankle monitor worn by a young woman who is reclining in the nude on a set of stairs; a young girl hiding her face behind her father who is posing for the camera.

All of this points to the fact that much like all good photographs, Lawson’s demand to be seen as much as read: they are made with intent and dedication, and they demand the same from their viewers. This brings me back to why photography is such a semi-art. There is the fact that photographs emerge from the world that we encounter right in front of us. They make us believe that we look at a part of the world.

At the same time, these photographs are art. This means that they are really more about their maker, Deana Lawson, than about those who find themselves in the frames.

In the end, this means that regardless of what we make of the photographs, we also have to become aware of what we want them to do for us. We can pretend that this aspect is irrelevant. But why would we even look at art if we didn’t allow it to see ourselves reflected in it — possibly in ways that challenge what we like to think about ourselves?

Deana Lawson; photographs by Deana Lawson; edited by Peter Eleey & Eva Respini; essays by Eva Respini and Peter Eleey, Kimberly Juanita Brown, Tina M. Campt, Alexander Nemerov, Greg Tate, plus a conversation between the Deana Lawson and Deborah Willis; 144 pages; MACK; 2021

If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might enjoy my Patreon. Also, I maintain a Mailing List. You can sign up here. If you follow the link, you can also see the growing archive. Emails arrive roughly every two weeks or so.