Currently in the Spotlight are three photographs from the Loeb's permanent collection. By exhibiting these works together, we hope to illuminate the process by which curators choose works of art to enter the museum's collection. Among our most recent acquisitions is Deana Lawson's striking portrait of Ashanti (2005). This photograph was acquired as an important work in its own right and because it addresses strengths and areas of growth in our collection. This work marks a turning point in Lawson’s prolific career, when she began making nude portraits of Black women in their own homes. The artist is known for her striking use of color and method of working collaboratively with sitters to create portraits that are both spontaneous and staged.
This work is accompanied by two very different portraits to demonstrate how Lawson’s photograph relates to both contemporary and historical aspects of the collection. The photograph by Mickalene Thomas, like Lawson’s, is an example of how contemporary Black artists are currently expanding the genre of portraiture in photography. Both Lawson and Thomas bring to their work overt awareness that making portrait photography is an exchange between the sitter and photographer, producing images that blend truth and fantasy. Alongside an iconic portrait photograph by Diane Arbus from the collection, these contemporary works are presented as part of an ongoing history of portrait photography made by women, an area of depth in the Loeb's collection. In all three photographs, the sitters look directly into the camera, demonstrating how personal identity and artistic expression are conveyed through intimate exchanges between photographers, sitters, and viewers. They are examples of how women photographers have taken up one of photography’s most enduring genres and pushed its boundaries in significant ways.
These photographs help illustrate some of our work to diversify the representation of artists and subject matter in the collection, and to make the process of prioritizing new works for acquisition more transparent. These efforts are part of the Loeb's ongoing initiative to cultivate and increase diversity, equity, access, and inclusion as core values across our culture, systems, and practices.
This photograph, Ashanti, depicts the artist’s salsa teacher at home and it is a striking example of Lawson’s nude portraits of people from a lower- or working-class situation whom she encounters in her life and around her neighborhood. Lawson’s choice of setting, the ordinary space of the home, allows her to investigate how domestic, interior spaces can serve as expressions of the self. Her portraits typically combine elements that are completely ready-made, such as the lighting and the décor, with those that are more carefully composed and even staged, such as the subjects’ gaze and pose. Here, Lawson experiments with staging some aspects of the room such as removing the sheet from the mattress to reveal the flower pattern below. The bold, repeating flowers are mirrored in the smaller, more subtle pattern of the curtains and offer a direct contrast to the drab brown of the carpet and headboard. The resulting portrait can be seen as both a realistic image of an individual and as a symbol of a strong woman who confronts the viewer with her direct, confident gaze.
As a contemporary artist working in a variety of mediums including photography, Mickalene Thomas often uses vibrant colors to compose scenes of Black empowerment. She upends traditional expectations of portrait photography. Rather than present portraits as expressions of individual subjectivity, she works with models to carefully craft poses and stage a scene for the camera. In this photograph, the sitter is pictured not as an individual but rather as an archetype of powerful, Black, queer womanhood. Like the vintage patterns that surround her, the model’s powerful gaze invites the viewer’s attention. Colorful textiles reference Black aesthetics of the 1970s, an era that saw the rise of the Black Arts and Black Power movements in the United States. Thomas also appropriates the composition of the “odalisque”—a common trope of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European painting. She rejects the orientalist practice of depicting submissive, female bodies of an exoticized “other” as objects of White male desire, instead creating portraits of Black women who own and embody their sexuality. In doing so, Thomas creates a portrait that is embedded with both delight and withering critique.
In 1963 American photographer Diane Arbus visited a nudist colony in New Jersey in order to photograph its residents. This now famous photograph began as an encounter with two strangers at home. Arbus had begun her career as a fashion photographer for magazines including Glamour and Vogue. In 1956 she turned her attention exclusively to photographing people in the streets of New York and, eventually, in their own homes. Her non-commercial work often focused on outcast individuals and subcultural communities, including the nudist colony where this photograph was made. Shortly before she made this photograph, Arbus had begun using a twin-lens reflex Rolleiflex camera, which is operated at waist level. Looking down into the viewfinder to frame a shot, rather than holding the camera in front of her face, Arbus could make conversation and eye contact with her sitters. She was known for getting to know strangers before and while she photographed them in order to make more honest, intimate portraits. This familiar scene of a husband and wife at home emphasizes the tension between norms and deviations. Like the open door in the background, their friendly expressions welcome us into this intimate domestic space. Remembering their vulnerable encounter with Arbus in an interview, one of the subjects of this photograph later said: “I was never really naked until that picture—do you see what I mean? She took pictures of the thoughts, feelings, things you might not even know existed inside yourself. It wasn’t that she made you look one way or another, she made you look exactly like yourself.”
- Diane Arbus, American, 1923–1971
"Retired Man and his Wife at Home in a Nudist Camp One Morning, N.J.", 1963
Gelatin silver print
Purchase, Louise Woodruff Johnston, class of 1922, Fund, 1974.21.4
- Deana Lawson, American, b. 1979
Purchase, Advisory Council for Photography, Boynton 1936 Art Purchase Fund and the Art Gallery Purchase Fund, 2020.23
- Mickalene Thomas, American, b. 1971
"Tamika sur une chaise longue", 2008
Purchase, Advisory Council for Photography, 2011.20