Rihanna Mania

Sometimes, the strongest statements are made without saying a word—which is why we’re enthralled with a new editorial featuring Rihanna—sans interview (at least for now)—in Garage magazine, Issue 15. But while the lens may be focused on Rihanna, the woman behind it is equally interesting, as acclaimed fine art photographer Deana Lawson turns fashion photographer, capturing the multi-hyphenate megastar in a series of intimate, nostalgia-infused portraits.

Fans of musician Dev Hynes, a.k.a. Blood Orange, might recognize Lawson’s signature style from his 2016 album Freetown Sound, which used one of her photographs as its cover. In March, Doreen St. Felix wrote of Lawson in The New Yorker:

“[She] has a knack for identifying and arranging the strangely potent components of black interiors that mean nothing and so much ... Lawson’s images proudly appropriate a popular black aesthetic, absorbing modes as varied as those found in old issues of Jet, in hip-hop souvenirs.”

Small, familiar details like a school photo of Rihanna in the background of a photo where she lounges on a chaise in the foreground—create a time capsule effect that is both surreal and subconsciously comforting.

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In May, Zadie Smith also wrote of Lawson in the New Yorker, teasing an upcoming book on her work, and saying:

“Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory, in which diaspora gods can be found wherever you look: Brownsville, Kingston, Port-au-Prince, Addis Ababa. ... Outside a Lawson portrait you might be working three jobs, just keeping your head above water, struggling. But inside her frame you are beautiful, imperious, unbroken, unfallen.”

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Of her own work, Lawson told The Cut:

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

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So how does Lawson—a Rochester, NY native whose trajectory has its roots in a predominantly working class family with almost mythical connections to the locally-based Kodak Eastman empire—capture a similarly mythical quality in her subjects? In an interview excerpted by Garage by fellow artist Arthur Jafa, Lawson explains how she sees her subjects, using one very recognizable inspiration:

I feel a lot of the figures that I use, I want them to be a pivotal point, or like a vehicle or a vessel for something else. ... in The Matrix (1999), the oracle was the black woman in the kitchen smoking a cigarette and making cookies. Like, that’s where the shit is—the knowledge. That’s the site of another dimension, maybe, but we don’t know it. That information has been distorted. But if black folks really knew that, we’d just be on a different plane.

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Of course, Rihanna is no anonymous stranger to be transformed; she’s an international icon—albeit one from modest beginnings herself—who’s been photographed literally thousands of times since she released her first album in 2005. While Lawson doesn’t speak on the experience of photographing her famous subject wearing Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Dolce & Gabbana and more, all while posed in the conspicuously outdated and humble interiors Lawson favors, the images themselves speak volumes.

“[W]hen I’m photographing someone, it always arrives from this undeniable attraction—like seeing a stranger on the street and the stranger seeing me,” Lawson told The Cut.

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For stylist Carlos Nazario, bridging the gap between fashion icon Rihanna and first-time fashion photographer Lawson’s imagery was tapping into the unique dynamism of each.

“You can’t mistake Deana’s photographs for anyone else’s,” he tells Garage. “But I did want to give her something a little bit different. I wanted to take all the elements—their grace and presence, and Rihanna’s fashion energy, and Deana’s particular style of photography—and we wanted to create something that felt new.”

And yet ironically, to create something that felt “new,” Nazario equally incorporated archival finds and contemporary designers, pulling looks from as far back as the 1960s.

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“I always like to incorporate vintage pieces, because it’s a whole world of clothing that people haven’t seen,” he told the magazine.

Screenshot: Deana Lawson (Garage Magazine)

His finds included the vivid pink, rose-colored bolero Rihanna wears on the magazine’s cover, paired with a gold Tiffany necklace, black Dolce & Gabbana briefs, and extra-long gold and jewel-embellished talons designed by English nail artist Jenny Longworth, who also worked with the star on her British Vogue September cover shoot.

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And while Nazario was adamant that he “didn’t want anything to feel period,” perhaps he’s correct in his belief that ultimately, it was the less predictable elements that best accentuated the enigmatic nature of his cover star.

“I think [Rihanna’s] comfort zone is to push it, right? I don’t think she feels comfortable when she feels like she’s worn it before,” he said. “I think when she gets excited, and when she often feels the most beautiful and the most powerful, is when she’s wearing something that kinda feels unexpected.”

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The Glow Up tip: Garage Magazine’s “Human Future” Issue 15 will be available Thursday, September 6.