Deana Lawson Is the 1st Photographer to Win the Guggenheim's Hugo Boss Prize

Spike Lee and Gordon Parks Foundation Fellow Deana Lawson attend Gordon Parks Foundation: 2018 Awards on May 22, 2018, in New York City.
Spike Lee and Gordon Parks Foundation Fellow Deana Lawson attend Gordon Parks Foundation: 2018 Awards on May 22, 2018, in New York City.
Photo: Bennett Raglin (Getty Images)

She was a member of the 2018 class of The Root 100, and now, photographer Deana Lawson is the winner of the Hugo Boss Prize 2020, the biennial award made possible by the luxury fashion label and administered by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation “to recognize significant achievement in contemporary art,” according to a release.

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Established in 1996, Lawson is the 13th winner of the award and the second Black artist, following sculptor Simone Leigh in 2018. Significantly, the Rochester, N.Y. artist is the first photographer to win the prize, selected by a jury of international critics and curators and granted an honorarium of $100,000 and a solo exhibition at the Manhattan’s Guggenheim Museum, scheduled to open in spring 2021.

“On behalf of our jury, I am delighted to announce Deana Lawson as the recipient of the 2020 Hugo Boss Prize,” said Richard Armstrong, Director, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. “Lawson is the first artist working in photography to be recognized with the award in its history, and her contribution to the medium and the larger cultural landscape is indelible.”

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What perhaps makes this honor so special and significant to us here at The Root is that Lawson’s work has become lauded for its intimate portraits of Black life, “in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look,” wrote author Zadie Smith in 2018.

“It’s about setting a different standard of values and saying that everyday black lives, everyday experiences, are beautiful, and powerful, and intelligent,” Lawson told The Cut that same year.

The Hugo Boss Prize jury selected Lawson from a shortlist of six nominees, including multimedia artist Kevin Beasley and Ethiopian artist Elias Sime. Recognizing the extraordinary challenges of this year, each of the remaining shortlisted artists will receive a $10,000 honorarium. Naomi Beckwith, Manilow Senior Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, and honoree in The Root 100 2020 was a member of this year’s jury, which explained the decision to honor Lawson with the top prize in a statement.

In this moment of accelerated cultural transformation, we were galvanized by the fact that the Prize and its associated exhibition have historically functioned as a platform for new artistic propositions and possibilities. With this in mind, we have chosen to honor Deana Lawson, an artist who offers compelling new modes of seeing and imagining.

Lawson brilliantly negotiates the legacies of vernacular, documentary, and conceptual photography to create indelible tableaux of Black colloquial life. While appearing to be images of actual families, friends, and lovers, her large-format works are in fact highly staged, cast, and choreographed, grounding their subjects in aesthetically rich material environments even as they gesture toward an ethereal elsewhere­—a deft, remarkable feat. Throughout her oeuvre, Lawson employs a number of formal and conceptual strategies that we believe will occupy viewers and scholars for generations to come. We are particularly excited that she is the first photographer to receive the Hugo Boss Prize, an indication that her singular approach, at once socially humane and technically incisive, is transformative of both the medium and the very concept of representation.

Accepting the tremendous honor, Lawson acknowledged both the unprecedented moment and its potential for profound inspiration. “As we’re all aware, 2020 has been a trying year on so many fronts,” she said in a statement. “It is during this moment that I feel the most call to continue the work of image-making, understanding that photographs have immense power, and reimagining new thresholds for evolution and liberation.”

Maiysha Kai is Managing Editor of The Glow Up, co-host of The Root Presents: It's Lit! podcast, and your average Grammy-nominated goddess next door...May I borrow some sugar?

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