Erica Deeman is a contemporary photographer whose current work in portraiture upturns assumptions on identity, humanity, gender, and race. Having joined us for a recent Dialogue: On Power, we explore the importance of reframing representation, historical legacy, and the redistribution of power.
ERICA DEEMAN: ON POWER & REPRESENTATION
Ariel Cooper: To start from the very beginning, what was your childhood like?
Erica Deeman: I was born in Nottingham, UK. My mom is Jamaican, my dad is English. I went to an all-girls private school from a very early age, and wore a school uniform every day. I lived in a formal environment and though not clearly spoken, a feminist agenda was present. Since it was an all-girls school, the headmistress was, by her title, a woman, and the focus was on academic excellence. Art was not given a foremost position in terms of my education, but being an educated, intelligent woman definitely was.
AC: How do you see that experience translating into your work?
ED: A formal nature and presentation is a legacy of my education, and the concept of historical references can be seen throughout my work. Having been taught from an early age that you could do anything as a woman, the potential of women has been a theme running through my life, with my first body of work focused on the silhouettes of women.
There were very few references of African diaspora in my childhood, both historical or representational. There were maybe four other women of color in my school and that similarly reflected the society I was growing up in at the time. The history we learned was so blatantly focused on the European perspective. So the concept of historical representation is present in my work as I look back and review the visual stimulus we were given and try to articulate and place people who are not white Europeans.
AC: As if you are creating a different type of history for people to look back on?
ED: Yes, using the framework and the familiarity we have with historical visual references such as portraiture, and re-articulating that for the African diaspora and for people of color.
AC: You mentioned you gravitated towards marketing with a desire to be a creative. How do you see your education in Public Relations informing your work?
ED: Advertising is about a single, clear message that people can understand. With art, you have a little bit more room for interpretation. In some ways, the wider the interpretation, the better the art. The more concise the interpretation for advertising, the better the advert. I understand that repetitious, visual recognitions are crucial to getting your message across. Because I work in series, I create environments where the only thing I'm changing is the person within the portrait. The idea that you can create something that is instantly recognizable as belonging to a campaign or a brand — I definitely still have that within me.
The only difference is that I've given my work a bit more room for interpretation. When you create an ad campaign, the logo has to be the same size. I can see that the spacing and design of my images is very similar, it's almost like there is no real change in dimensions. In some ways, it replicates the way people look at people of color. My work builds off the idea that we group things and we generalize. The work fits into that expectation, but forces you to kind of look further.
AC: This visual recognition is evident throughout your work, with the concept of the silhouette being very prominent. What drew you to the silhouette, and how has that evolved throughout your art career thus far?
ED: The first time I invited a woman from the African diaspora into my studio, the image that I made was a silhouette. I wasn't there to make a silhouette. It's something that I saw. There is a historical importance -- the silhouette is a mass medium that people use and formulate identity from. This is important in the context of my work because women of color were never really included within the silhouette.
It [the silhouette] is strongly linked to features in character. Physiognomy and the legacy of pseudoscience is still within our psyche somewhere. The reality is that we can look at someone's face, or we can look at the shape of a feature, and think, “That person is dishonest, or honorable, or a criminal,” or all these different elements and assumptions. We still have a resting bitch face. We have people that alter their faces to be perceived as more favorable. The silhouette is a tool to enhance and open up that dialogue. With my work, I have the opportunity to give more detail and humanity to my subjects.
AC: Re-envisioning the silhouette to include all the nuances that exists, rather than just an outline or a shell.
ED: Exactly. Through my own experience of moving to the States, I felt the expectation that's placed upon you because of the color of your skin. It's been very important for me to think about how I could open up a wider visual narrative for people of color, for women from the African diaspora, so they could be perceived with more depth and with more character, and with more adjectives used to describe us.
AC: Could you share a bit about the relationship you have with the subjects you photograph and how you choose whom to photograph?
ED: Many of the women I found were strangers from the street. When I started making the work in school, I waited outside in areas of high foot traffic in search for women of color. It isn't important for me to have a deep connection with somebody before I make an image, but it turned out that many of my subjects became friends and helped me find additional people for more photographs.
It is an interesting experience to ask somebody for a formal portrait, because firstly, it is very formal, and secondly, there are so many expectations around beauty, and what it means to be in a portrait within such a formal setting. There's always going to be a problem with beauty, and how it's defined, and I enjoy challenging and asking those questions -- what does it mean to be beautiful within a photograph, and how is it measured and owned?
I realize that within portraiture, I am making the images. It is my interpretation, and a photograph or a visual representation could never really, truly supply any real information about who a person is. So, in a way, my subjects are my great vessels in which I can deliver my message.
AC: Similar themes of authority and representation were prominent in our recent Dialogue: On Power. What reflections do you have on that conversation and how these themes relate to your work?
ED: History is very important for me. As we get access to more information, it's very clear how history is articulated and how it can be re-articulated and redressed. For me, in my work, art has power. It's very important to look at who is making the work, and who is in front of, and the vision of the work, and how that has formed representation. In connection to our dialogue, we all have some measure of power. With my work, I'm trying to re-contextualize it on gallery walls.
We can look at how power has been distributed, and we can use that information as a springboard to create a wider, more sympathetic narrative. I think one of the great successes of the movie Moonlight, is not necessarily this great, dynamic storyline, but just the possibility of emotion for the characters involved. Emotions that challenge us all to think in a broader way. I think that's very powerful. There is power merely in the act of transforming a thought into a deeper emotion that could make one stop for just a second and think, "If this woman can look like this on the gallery wall, maybe she could be this in normal life,” or “maybe he could have so much more depth than what I've previously expected.”
Within a photograph, and within visual depiction, there is power. There is the power to elevate, and there is the power to denigrate. I think that within this environment and within this body of work, it's definitely an empowering, shared moment. Using the portrait and its historical ability to elevate and position, especially within the gallery setting. Within a walled, framed environment that has always been its intention.
AC: You just mentioned creating a more sympathetic narrative. How did that desire influence your creative decisions for your new series, Brown?
ED: Brown came from the expectation about my own heritage. I am biracial, and I have always found that people expected my dad to be black and my mum to be white. It's the other way around. In this series, I wanted to explore that expectation of the black man.
An image can challenge a legacy of physiognomy, this idea of "othering," and the elevation of European features. The portrait has provided a way to understand someone and depending on the depth and environment we assume, "This person looks a particular way, which means this person is fantastic, and great, and all of those wonderful, positive characteristics." But then we've seen other photographs or depictions and assume, "This person is obviously a criminal,” or "This person is dishonest."
For the Brown series, color was incredibly important for me. The backdrop is a color that is very close to my own skin tone as a way to insert myself into the image. Obviously, I am within the image because the portrait is a shared moment, but I wanted to have some kind of physical element of myself within the image. This particular color opens up a narrative about color and definitions. I also used a very formal portrait style that we are used to seeing, but not with men of color. Not with men from the African diaspora.
Another creative decision I made was the naked torso, which speaks to the idea of removing clothing as the key identifier and class positioning for these men. I wanted the viewer to look at the faces within a repetitive environment and try to understand who they are against the beautiful color that is emanating.
When people create work, especially photography, the assumption is that the person creating the work has all of the power. I return back to that word, because the assumption is that you, behind the camera, are in the strongest position. But with this body of work, it's not always true. There is so much of me that I have to give in order to create something that we share together. The process is completely shared in terms of that power dynamic. We are definitely making something together.
AC: What are you hoping to bring to your next body of work?
ED: It's always about evaluation. I'm always asking, "How am I evaluated?" In everyday life, I'll walk into an office to look at some prints, and someone's going to say hello to me, and within that split second they are evaluating me.
My practice is centered on evaluation. That is the concept that I always bring to the work. When you look at this person, right now, what are you thinking? How am I being perceived? How am I perceiving the person that's in front of my camera? How is the person in front of a beautiful, framed piece of work in a gallery wall evaluating this person? That's where I am. That's me. I'm always there.
AC: Is there anything you want to share about your current shows at BAMPFA (Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive) and your first show with Anthony Meier Fine Arts?
ED: Other than that I'm super excited about it? No. This will be the first time that so many of my portraits will have been placed on the wall -- over 30 of them. I feel that it's going to widen the narrative of these men and women, and I’m excited to be in both Berkeley and San Francisco!
Edited by Brianna Colburn & Ariel Cooper