I remember feeling distinctly floored the first time I saw Deana Lawson’s work. It was an image Lawson had taken in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti of a woman, nude and gazing into the camera. Her body is posed slightly sideways, and she's surrounded by worn mattresses and assorted, maybe unwanted, things. The photo, titled "Hotel Oloffson Storage Room,” is a thematic match to much of the Rochester-born, Brooklyn-based photographer’s work: black subjects shot in environments that reveal as much about them as they do about the viewer’s assumptions. Lawson’s “Binky & Tony Forever” similarly captures a young couple in love, in a pristine room watched over by a poster of Michael Jackson. When the 2009 image was revealed as the cover art for Blood Orange’s Freetown Sound, its re-emergence in this different context stoked my interest. We asked Deana Lawson to explain the genesis of the photo and how it ended up as an album cover, seven years after it was taken.
DEANA LAWSON: "Binky & Tony Forever" started out with an idea I had wanting to represent, in a photograph, love between a young couple. I already knew Binky; she was a makeup artist I met on a job, and she totally fit the idea I had because I wanted the female subject to be tiny, and Binky totally fit that. I asked her if she knew someone she wanted to pose with in the photograph, and said that it would be an intimate picture. I wanted to represent physical intimacy, and so she asked one of her friends, Anthony, to participate.
Essentially, the genesis of the idea was about young love. That was actually the working title, "Young Love." And then I switched it to "Binky & Tony Forever" because there was something about their names, too, that I felt was a great coupling. I felt like it represented young love without actually saying it, you know? It reminded me of how people would tag their boyfriends and girlfriends by carving in a tree or as graffiti on a wall and make a heart around it.
I wasn’t necessarily thinking of it as a direct narrative story. A lot of my work is about what I don't see in popular media culture, and to me I felt like I needed to make an image that was about embracing and intimacy and support, physically, between young people, particularly young black people. I usually find strangers, and I photograph in their environment. When I asked Binky where she wanted to photograph, I don't think she was comfortable at her place, so we decided to do it at my apartment in BedStuy, Brooklyn. So the picture's actually in my apartment, it's my bedroom. Often, I rearrange things in the environment but in “Binky & Tony Forever,” my bedroom pretty much looked like that.
The only thing I inserted was the Michael Jackson poster. “Binky & Tony Forever” was made in 2009 so when I look at it now, I’m like, Why did I put the Michael Jackson poster up? I think was using a part of my own memory of popular culture while I was growing up, and what poster I would've had on my wall when I was a certain age. I didn't know Blood Orange at the time but, looking back all these years later, the MJ poster was a great fit. As for the bedspread, it’s mine, too. I got it from a thrift shop, and there's something about the color and the lace that also went along with the aesthetic of the picture, you know? It’s kind of feminine, but then the olive green is sort of a weird.
I definitely want to play off the viewer's familiarity, or memories of these sorts of spaces, so I guess I used that as material. I definitely use environmental spaces to be manipulated or to be arranged or rearranged in a certain way, if that plays off the body or the subjects or the pose. I think the two things that are really important in the work is pose and the space.
And with Binky and Tony, it took a lot of shots to get to that image, but I knew I did not want the male subject to necessarily be looking directly in the camera. I wanted to have direct eye contact with the female. The photograph is definitely more about the female space, and her gaze, and her love. And he's someone who is not in an inferior position per se, but he's the one sitting down while she's standing up. The relationship to power and their position is somewhat highlighted by that; even though she's tiny and smaller than him, her love is actually supportive and upholding their relationship, so to speak.
“I didn’t make the image to be viewed or consumed in this way, and so to me to know that it can be recontextualized as an album cover? That shows the power of photography.”
For the photo, I asked Binky to wear short-shorts. At first, I wanted to have her pose nude, but then I was like, You know what, this doesn't have to be a nude shot. I asked her to bring short-shorts because it goes back to another childhood memory I had. Once, when I was nine or ten years old, I was at an amusement park in Rochester, New York called Sea Breeze. And there were teenagers — maybe they were 14, 15, or 16 — standing beside me in line. They were all snuggled up, and the guy had his arms around the girl, and she had on these shorts-shorts. Binky and Tony were in their 20s but I think I was trying to mimic the memory of that moment, that couple.
The way this became the Blood Orange cover was so interesting. Dev Hynes reached out to me and I went to his studio, and listened to the album. We didn’t know each other, and it was totally based on the work. I thought he was so prolific and the music was just so beautiful. I hope I don’t misquote him but he said that when he was making the album, he often looked at art. One of the works that he was looking at during the process throughout the past year was my work and contact sheet. He said that he wanted to work together and there's one image in particular that he kept coming back to, and that was "Binky & Tony." And so we thought about it and he asked me if it could be the album cover, and I said, “You know what? That would be amazing.”
It was really great to actually meet with him, and have a conversation in the studio, and listen to his music. He read me journal pieces from the songs; he has these journals of all the lyrics and is just really thoughtful and I was blown away at the layers of meaning in his music that one might not necessarily hear on the first listen to the album. There’s so many layers of research. It's such an honor to have another artist outside of the visual art realm appreciate the work and think about it and have it create images in his mind and also through his music.
But before I agreed, I had to halt for one second. I’ve never really had my work be circulated in this way unless I was commissioned to do a job. And since I wasn't commissioned to shoot an album cover and it was already in my body of work, it definitely made me think. But at the same time, I felt like "Binky & Tony" would fit the aesthetic and the legacy of what Blood Orange is doing and also what I'm doing as well. The artist that he is made it a lot easier for me to agree. If it was another artist, I probably would not have given permission to do that but I feel like his mission, his intention, and his aesthetic fits mine.
Here’s how I think about it: I made the work in 2009. That’s seven years ago, that seems like a long time. I didn't make the image to be viewed or consumed in this way, and so to me to know that it can be recontextualized as an album cover? That shows the power of photography. That it’s able to circulate and be currency in different worlds and platforms between the art world, editorial, documentary, fine art — I love it. I love those gray, intersecting lines. If "Binky & Tony" being the cover of this album could open up even a wider audience for my fine art work, that's all good, too. It goes towards an idea that I've always had, in wanting my work to be accessible to people beyond the formally educated high art world. And if this is one of the ways that it can be accessed, then I have absolutely no problem with it.