This exhibition presents Erica Deeman’s series Silhouettes, thirty large-scale photographs of women from the African diaspora. The manner in which these images were shot and printed emphasizes the subjects’ stark silhouettes against a white background; however, these are actually color photographs, and prolonged looking reveals nuances of tone that call into question our initial assumptions about the technique and, by extension, the subjects themselves. Indeed, the artist’s goal is to create complicated expressions of identity analogous to her own journey of self-discovery: of dual English and Jamaican heritage, Deeman (b. 1977) was raised in Nottingham and is now based in San Francisco.
Deeman’s portraits employ the silhouette in conscious reference to the technique’s use in the eighteenth-century pseudoscience of physiognomy. As developed by the Swiss philosopher Johann Kaspar Lavater, the portrait silhouette was used to demonstrate how individuals’ character traits were reflected in their facial forms. Lavater’s ideas were widely adopted not only in science and criminology but also in literature, and in the nineteenth century, silhouettes became a popular form of portraiture among the bourgeoisie in Europe and the United States.
For the series, begun in 2013, Deeman found her subjects by placing ads, approaching strangers on the street, and asking friends and family to pose. In her studio, the artist instructed her sitters to maintain a neutral expression for their portraits, which repeat the same composition—a shoulder-length silhouette generally centered on the head. “Today, we are living through an important time,” comments Deeman, “where tough questions are being asked about how both people of color and women are treated and depicted.” As the artist has also noted, it would not have been common in the past for a woman of color to be the subject of an artistic portrait of this kind, and even today such images cannot help but call to mind—by virtue of their rarity—issues of privilege, class, and race. Deeman’s work reveals the beauty of diverse physiognomies and suggests her subjects’ power and strength of character through the scale and grace of her images.