It’s hard to know where to first look in Deana Lawson’s photograph Nation (2017). At the figure on the left, sitting on the couch, pointing his fingers like a gun at the camera? At the man next to him wearing a terrifying mouth brace? At the third man, in the back, who appears headless behind another image inserted into the frame in the upper-right corner of the photograph? Or at that second image itself: a startling picture of George Washington’s dentures. The set of teeth, formed in part from the mouths of slaves, is a haunting metaphor for the history and legacy of the African American experience in the United States. In this month’s New to MoMA, in which we explore an artwork that recently joined MoMA’s collection, the artist behind this powerful tableau tells senior curator Roxana Marcoci how Washington’s mouthpiece captured her attention, and how she repurposed it in her quest to reveal the majesty and richly layered history of black life.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Roxana Marcoci: You were born in Rochester, the birthplace of Kodak. Your grandmother was the domestic housekeeper for George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, and your mother worked as an administrative assistant in his offices. Could you say just a few words about the impact of this kind of entanglement with photography and your matrilineal genealogy on your practice?
Deana Lawson: Yeah. I’m influenced from both the matrilineal side and also the patrilineal side. As you mentioned, my mom has been an administrative assistant at Kodak for over 30 years, and my father was also the family photographer who would photograph weddings, barbecues, and other events. I think influence has a mysterious way of seeping in, whether it’s more direct—my father being a photographer—or these stories that have been passed along. It wasn’t until maybe seven years ago that I learned that our grandmother cleaned the home of George Eastman, and I was really surprised. My aunt also told me a story that apparently, the night before his death, my grandmother overheard George Eastman ask his nurse where his heart was located. And later he shot himself in the chest. I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
When did you know that photography was what you wanted to do?
My junior year in college it was very clear. In my first photo class Melissa Janssen introduced us to several photographers, including Diane Arbus. She also showed the film Streetwise, by Mary Ellen Mark. And I was like, wow, you can do that with photography. You can tell stories and look at particular lives through the lens.
So can we talk about your working process? How do you start? Do you start from an image? Do you start from an idea? Do you start from a prop or is each case different?
Each case is different. I don’t have a set methodology. I would describe the process as a little bit more messy, but it really depends. Sometimes I might be inspired by an idea, and my partner will sketch it out for me. So I have this sketch, and I know I have to find the subject who’s going to pose for this particular picture. There have been moments where I’ve had an idea and I sat with it for six months to a year before I actually realize it. Other times, the subject inspires the work. For one of my more recent pictures that was in my last solo show at Sikkema Jenkins gallery, Eternity (2018), I was captivated by the subject when she got on the train. She was just so striking; everyone was captivated by her. When I saw her, I thought I wanted to use her as the primordial Eve subject, but I didn’t have that idea beforehand. But then, with Sons of Cush (2016), I had actually tried that shoot months before in Flint, Michigan, and it failed. I did a reshoot in California with different subjects, a different dress for the baby, different location.
How do you go about articulating black experience in your work?
I think the inspiration came from invisibility or lack of seeing the presence of the brown body, even though I knew it had a certain majesty. My family is a big, big African American family in Rochester, New York. I know from stories, engagements, and parties there’s so much intelligence that’s not academic, but intelligent in a different way that I wanted to reference. I think as a black female photographer, my natural instinct was to image people who resemble people who I grew up around. In that sense, I didn’t make a political choice, but it was a political choice at the same time.
I realize too that there are several black experiences. I guess my identity as an artist or as an individual is singular and everyone else has a singular vision. I’m not a documentarian. The staged part, where I insert myself by bringing props, by having people pose in environments that are not always their own, in a way inserts my singular dream vision within something that’s very real. James Baldwin said, “The crown has already been paid for. All we have to do is wear it.” I feel like every subject that I meet is wearing a crown. Not because I would take a picture of them, they already have that crown on. I want to capture within them something that represents the majesty of black life, a nuanced black life, one that is by far more complex, deep, beautiful, celebratory, tragic, weird, strange.
Let’s talk a little bit about Nation. Did you originally intend to create a picture about a nation’s history? Did the title come before or after you made the picture?
The title came after I made the picture. The only thing I knew is that I had a dream. I saw a man with that mouth piece, and it haunted me. I became obsessed with the idea, and I searched to find and buy that mouthpiece, which I did. I would say, maybe a few months before, I was captivated by the story of George Washington’s teeth and then, of course, the actual photo of his dentures.
I had learned that George Washington had considerable mouth issues throughout his life. Apparently, when he was inaugurated as the first president, he only had one tooth remaining in his mouth. He had dentures made out of ivory, gold wire, and human teeth, which were slave teeth or teeth he purchased from slaves. I actually saw this in a documentary and I thought it was bizarre. When I went online to look up the teeth and I saw a photo, it was just as macabre as the narrative in a way. I sat with the picture of the teeth on my wall in my bedroom for months, and I put the teeth up in my studio. Fast-forward to when I had this dream of the person with a mouth guard. I knew I was interested in gold going back to Sons of Cush—how gold is displayed beautifully on black skin. There is a nobility and majesty of a lot of gold that’s worn, and how it’s appropriated in hip-hop, and how I think hip-hop actually channels ancient kingdoms: how gold was worn, say, in Kumasi with the Ashanti. I had approached a friend, and I told him about the idea I had, and I wanted to photograph three men. He helped me to find the men.
Are the men models?
They’re not models, but they are hip-hop artists. They do have kind of a public persona.
You can feel that in their gestures, because there are so many unsettling aspects about this photograph. Where was it shot?
That was the apartment of the person who helped me find the subjects, his grandmother’s apartment, who he lived with. One of the paintings on the wall is his, and the photos are of him when he was younger.
The photograph itself rests within a golden frame. Could you say more about that?
I was questioning contemporary ideas of framing and I wanted the frame to be simple. I didn’t want it to be super ornate, just straight, clean gold, almost like gold jewelry. A couple weeks before the photo shoot, I had gone on Utica Avenue to buy more fake gold, and told the subjects to bring whatever gold that they had to the shoot. The one subject who has the ankh on his chest—going back to Egypt and Sons of Cush—that was his actual necklace, but it just makes perfect sense in the photo. I found this mouthpiece and I spray-painted it gold because I wanted it to blend in. I wanted it to be like jewelry, but of course, it’s a medieval, frightening device that could harken back to torturous events during slavery.
What is that contraption?
It is a dental apparatus that’s used to hold the mouth open when you have dental surgery so you don’t swallow. I acquired one. The day of the shoot, I had a table laid out of all the jewelry, and everyone was like, “Oh, I’ll take this one and that one.” Then they were like, “Well, what is that?” I was like, “Well, that is a piece that someone is actually going to wear in their mouth.” And no one said anything. And then Ruben, the subject who is wearing it, he said, “I’ll wear it.” And I thought, “Okay.”
We started to do the photo shoot. He didn’t have the mouth guard on at this point. I’ve been shooting maybe 30 or 40 minutes and soon I’m gonna wrap up. I don’t really take too much time shooting because people get tired and people got places to go. And I realized I hadn’t used the mouthpiece. And I was like, “Oh, we have to use this.” I asked Ruben to put it on. At this point, Killa Moe, the subject with the ankh, he’s texting on the phone. I have my large format set up, and I’m pretty much ready to take the shot, and I can see that Ruben is getting tired with this thing in his mouth. And I said, “Ruben, look at me.” Killa Moe is still texting. I said, “Killa Moe, look up at me and do the gun trigger sign.” And as soon as he looked up and he did the trigger, then that was the shot, and...
It’s a double shot.
Yeah, exactly. And it’s almost like Killa Moe took the shot at us, at the audience or maybe, you know, the institution of slavery. Or to say, “I recognize you. I see you.”
How many shots do you take to arrive at the final picture that you really want?
For this shoot in particular, that was maybe the second to last shot, and I knew when I had it actually. Maybe photographers work differently, but I can say that there have been times where I knew in the moment I had the one. It’s rare, because for the most part when I see an image of mine that’s powerful, I think, “I don’t even remember taking that image.”
So we talked a little bit about the fact that every photograph is a mix of artistic intention and some chance or coincidence. In this picture, were the subjects doing anything on their own without your direction that you incorporated?
The subject in the back whose face is covered by the insert, he was texting at that time. It’s so funny, this generation with their phones, me included. But it actually worked out because all I needed was those two, and I also love how he kinda goes off frame. The body is present, but then you have this cut to George Washington’s teeth, which to me mimics or is a metaphor for this immediate clash of history in the present moment.