New 'Deana Lawson' photo exhibit makes Black life visible at the High Museum

"Deana Lawson" is a new exhibit at the High Museum whose photos challenge historic representations of Black life and is on view through Feb. 9. (Deana Lawson)

Deana Lawson has referred to her work as a mirror of everyday life. Her photographs examine and challenge historical representations of Black people and Black life. “Deana Lawson” is a new exhibition at the High Museum co-organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and MoMA PS1, on view through Feb. 9.

Maria Kelly, assistant curator of photography at the High, joined “City Lights” producer Summer Evans via Zoom To talk more about Lawson’s photography exhibition.

Interview highlights:

Narratively rich images at arresting scale:

“Deana is creating these really beautiful, highly staged, large format color photographs that are depicting individuals, couples, and groups in both domestic and public settings, and she’s constructing these narratives of family, love, intimacy and desire. But rather than creating documentary or biographical pictures, she’s making images that tell stories. She calls each image, actually, a ‘portal,’ to reclaim and make visible Black experiences,” Kelly explained.

“Her works are very large-scale. When you come into the museum, you’ll see that some of them are even four feet across. It renders the figures who are shown in the images as almost nearly life-size, so it’s a really immediate exchange between both the viewer and the subject, in looking at one another. And I think that’s what, actually, is really one of the most significant pieces about her work – is there’s really no passive looking in viewing these works. It really does feel like the viewer is being met by the person who is being viewed in these pieces.”

Taking time, care and courage to create meaningful visual stories:

“You’ll see a lot of family photos on tables… and you’ll see, you know, just things a little out of array; not so organized. And I think it’s great to remember that [Lawson] is working with a really large format camera, so the whole process of her photographing is a very slow one. It’s very deliberate,” said Kelly. “Her sessions of photographing may last 30 to 40 minutes, and even though the scene might look like she just happened upon it and just kind of snapped it really fast, it’s so perfectly composed exactly as she wants you to see it. No part is not supposed to be seen in that photograph.”

“She encounters most of her subjects on the street. There’s a really great quote that she has shared… ‘My studio is the world. My studio is working up enough courage to get out of the house and go somewhere and try to find subjects and see what happens. It’s intimidating. It’s at times nerve wracking. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s also refreshing and invigorating. Every time I approach a new subject, I’m meeting them for the first time, and it humbles me in a way. There’s something about exchanging energy, the kinetic energy of this stranger.’ So I think that adds a whole other level to looking at these pictures,” Kelly said.

From locations across the globe, a sense of interconnectedness:

“She’s also photographing across the African and African-American diasporas,” said Kelly. “She’s building this, what she calls an ‘ever-expanding mythological extended family,’ across continents and countries. So she’s photographing everywhere from Brooklyn to Atlanta, from Haiti to Ethiopia, from Brazil to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and so kind of creating this mythological family, and lineages that are crossing times and oceans.” 

“In the title, she’s not including the location where she photographed the people… It’s always just anonymous, so you just get this sense of everybody being this family, regardless of location. She’s not looking to segment anybody in that way. She’s trying to unify in that way, emphasizing this sort of connection across time, and across space, and creating this larger family,” Kelly reflected.

“Deana Lawson” is on view at the High Museum of Art through Feb. 19, 2023. Tickets and more information are available at