I have been curious about the delicate negotiations Lawson has had with her subjects like Ms. Bell since I first came across her work online. Writer Zadie Smith, who Lawson met a few years ago at a dinner hosted by a colleague at New York University where Smith teaches, emailed me that Lawson immediately found her “calm and easy with people and.” open to everything ”felt. They quickly bonded as young mothers struggling to balance their parental responsibilities with their artistic desires. Smith remembered going to a party once and pecking out her hair in an afro and feeling insecure. Lawson seemed to sense her discomfort and came over to compliment her. “She’s just someone who makes other people feel like they can say anything, do anything,” says Smith. Lawson told me that she finds herself extremely persistent in doing what she wants. “I’m persistent, not because I just want to be persistent, but because I feel like I have an ultimate purpose in doing it,” she says.
Lawson’s purpose can feel dictated. The Kodak empire is headquartered in Rochester, NY, their hometown, and according to family tradition, Lawson’s paternal grandmother cleaned the home of George Eastman, Kodak’s founder. Lawson’s mother served in the administration of the company for more than 30 years. Lawson’s aunt Sylvia was one of the first black ophthalmologists in New York State – a pioneer in laser surgery who helped people regain their eyesight. I asked Lawson if she thought these details were critical to understanding as an artist or if they were being overruled by the media as a narrative. But she says she sees the Kodak connection as divine intervention. “In retrospect, I have the feeling that there is a fate,” she says, mainly because she did not grow up in museums. “The institutions I grew up with were the public school and the mall,” she says with a laugh.
Lawson speaks of her childhood with awe and amazement. “It was an amazing experience, and in a way, my work keeps going back to it,” she says. Her family has been rooted in the Rochester area for generations. Her mother Gladys has five sisters and three brothers, and her father Cornelius has three brothers and three sisters. She was close to her mother’s side, watching how keenly they dressed, how fully they expressed themselves, how hard they loved, how hard they fought. She heard stories of staying out late on the weekends but always making it to church in the morning. “I’ve seen them as very powerful women, and I’ve always stayed that way,” she says, adding, “I’ve also seen the complexity.”
Lawson grew up in a set – first as the twin of her sister Dana and then as a trio with her best friend Dana Brown, a different kind of twin. When the three girls were young they were so together that people called them “DeanaDanaDanaBrown”. Lawson’s twin learned that she had multiple sclerosis when she was 17 and is now living in an assisted living facility in Rochester. Brown has since moved to Alabama but still travels with Lawson and sometimes accompanies them on filming. At the time, Lawson said, “We felt invincible, as if the world was ours and we could do anything.”
Lawson’s mother didn’t finish high school, and she and Lawson’s father were determined that their daughters would enjoy academic benefits. They enrolled the twins in a program that took them out of town and into a suburban high school, which they attended until they were kicked out for fighting. They were moved to a tougher school in town, where Lawson learned to play spades over lunch and also experienced chaotic corridor fights. “That was the first time I recognized class differences in education and what privileges and eligible students had or didn’t have,” she says. Even then, Lawson remembers “having always seen how other people lived”.
The family, which she also regards as a micro-institution, complicated and rich in ancestral wisdom, established her self-confidence early on. She remembers the summers, barbecues and big family gatherings. She remembers wearing color-coordinated outfits for Grandpa Jeffries’ annual birthday parties. For a year the color was red and everyone, including the children, wore tuxedos with red cummerbunds; another time it was dark blue. Lawson recalls one Easter celebration when two of the cousins got into a fistfight and rolled down the hill, fighting in their prime Sunday time. In a way, she’s still working on the tensions of those moments. “There are these dichotomies, these opposites of friendliness and roughness,” she says in a waning voice.
She felt loved and isolated from the outside world. “I’m so happy that my friends and I haven’t given any major thought to what it means to be black,” she told me. “There’s a certain innocence in it, and when you take this experience for granted, there are so many possibilities.” In a way, she keeps trying to get back to that time of amazement and amazement – she stares in awe at her cousins as they danced on stage at a talent show to MC Hammer, aunts who upset each other in the kitchen and the Enjoy the secrets of the twin world with Dana and adventure with Dana Brown. These memories influence who she wants to photograph and what kind of backdrop she arranges them in front of. “That’s part of my gaze now,” she told me.