In her series “Brown,” Erica Deeman photographs men of the African diaspora against a brown backdrop. The straightforward series addresses the omission of black men from the tradition of formal portraiture, revealing the simple power of a photographic depiction.
The project came about while Deeman was mulling over the idea of expectations and the discriminatory frameworks that underlie our assumptions. “I am biracial,” Deeman told The Huffington Post as an example, “and I’ve found that the expectation is that my father is black and my mother is white, but it’s actually the other way around.”
The artist then began thinking about men of color and the ways that they have historically been pictured in front of the camera ― the ugly history of physiognomy, and the mugshot, came to mind. Deeman then wondered, if she created images depicting black men in a more dignified light, would they have the power to shatter expectations with no firm footing in reality?
Deeman, who is based in San Francisco, recruited strangers to serve as subjects for a series of portraits, the only requirements being that they were of the African diaspora and identified as male. Every man is depicted shirtless, from the shoulders up, staring slightly off-camera.
The repetitive formula alludes to the history of portraiture, specifically the stately renderings of patrons, nobility and the aristocratic elite that take up so much space on museum walls. “Men of color historically were not granted the opportunity to appear sympathetic in portraits,” Deeman said. “That was restricted to the bourgeois.”
The portraits also allude to the ways photography has been used to criminalize and oppress people of color. “I think photography is problematic because so many people see it as the truth,” Deeman explained. “It has made people buy into physiognomy and eugenics and all of that. I always joke that the photograph was the biggest lie that was ever made.”
Physiognomy is a pseudoscientific field that argues one’s character can be determined from his or her appearance, especially facial features. “It was used to justify racism,” Deeman said, “by elevating European features and criminalizing everyone else.” Mug shots, whose aesthetics turn human beings into indexable felons, offer another example of photography invading our subconscious presumptions.
“The mug shot is this very stark presentation,” Deeman said. “Formulaic in its style. People are placed against a blue backdrop or white backdrop, the flash is always the same, everything is the same within the context of the image. I wanted to make something with a formula, but challenge that aesthetic.”
In lieu of a blue or white backdrop, for example, she opted for a coffee-colored hue, a color that nearly matches her own skin tone. “It’s about placing myself within the image,” she said. “The color represents me.”
Deeman’s work highlights the immense power of a simple ritual, a subject and photographer conspiring to create a portrait. For much of photography’s history, men of color were denied access to self-portraits that truly represented themselves as complex individuals. Deeman hopes to rupture this tradition. “We are together in this place, making this photograph,” she said. “In these photos, I’m saying: ‘This is how I think you should be seen, and this is how you should be seen.’”
The artist hopes her work can open up a broader narrative for men of color. She does not want to influence her audience’s perception of her subjects, but rather leave space for the viewer to construct complex hypotheses regarding these strangers’ personalities. Through the project, Deeman hopes people will examine their own expectations a bit more critically.
“With the administration that we have right now, there are extreme limits on everybody who is not seen as ‘traditionally American,’” Deeman said. “I think that this body of work can challenge some of the stereotypes that some people want to revert back to.”
“Erica Deeman: Brown” will be on view at Anthony Meier Fine Arts in San Francisco from March 24 until April 28.