In his essay “The Occasion for Speaking” (1960), West Indian novelist George Lamming posits that the seeds of colonization are subtly and richly infused with myths that are difficult to dislodge. Lamming was speaking of myths that haunt postcolonial writing, but his observation applies to photographer Dionne Lee’s chosen medium too. The artist explores how histories of trauma are embedded in the conventions of landscape photography. Working primarily with analog tools, she investigates dualities found in the natural world, focusing on how rural landscapes have historically been sites of both refuge and violence for Black people.
Lee first noticed this duality while growing up in Harlem. In a 2020 virtual studio visit hosted by Silver Eye Center for Photography in Pittsburgh, she cites Central Park as her entry point to the natural world. But later in life, she learned that this contested geography conceals stories of the free Black American landowners who once populated Seneca Village, a community that was forcibly displaced to make room for Central Park.
Lee began interrogating the racialized histories of the American landscape by means of photography in 2016, while an MFA student at the California College of the Arts. Her black-and-white A Test for Forty Acres from that year is a photograph of a patch of grassy land covered by a giant emergency blanket—the artist was aiming for forty acres—that Lee made by taping together sheets of reflective mylar. By producing this emergency blanket and then placing it on the hilly land, she pointed to an unfulfilled promise: in January 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 granted family homesteads up to forty acres to some 18,000 freed slaves in portions of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, but by that fall, President Andrew Johnson had overturned it. Lee’s choice of material was prompted by personal experience. After receiving an emergency blanket in an earthquake kit upon moving to California, the artist noticed that it both beautifully reflected the sky and evoked an image of crisis. In a virtual artist talk at the New Orleans Museum of Art, she said the gesture posed a series of questions: What do we consider an emergency? What could be reflected back to us?
More recently, Lee, who is now based in Oakland and teaches at Stanford, has been making collages. She often glues together double-exposed gelatin silver prints, found images, and graphite drawings. In two related collages, North and True North (both 2019), we see the artist’s hands gesture upward—pinkies extended, thumbs touching, and the three middle fingers of each hand bent inward. This configuration, held horizontally, is a tool for navigation. If one pinkie is pointing to the end of the Big Dipper’s handle, the other should point toward true north, which differs from magnetic north in small yet fundamental ways. One is found using a tool; the other, using one’s body. In an audio track accompanying the works in “Companion Pieces: New Photography 2020,” an online exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lee says the images are an homage to her ancestors who navigated north on the Underground Railroad. The works bespeak Lee’s interest in exploring the body’s relationship to the land, and in tools that facilitate survival in the wilderness, an ability relevant to both social history and climate change.
Motivated by fear of impending ecological disaster, Lee has been learning a number of outdoor skills: how to navigate, make fires, and forage for food. During a lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design last fall, Lee noted, “My ancestors, who were enslaved, had to be survivalists, and I’m attempting to reclaim that heritage.” In response to nearly drowning in a public pool as a child, she made her gelatin silver print A place to drown (2019) by scanning an image of a desolate swimming hole. Lee slowly dragged a found photograph across a digital flatbed, and the resulting image is a distorted view of what seems like a gaping hole, perhaps a portal for escape. Swimming is yet another survival skill that reflects histories of racial oppression. The work brings up questions of access: historically, who had the right to swim? Who had access to water? Who had the privilege to perfect the survival skill of swimming?
Many of Lee’s works evoke the sublime terror we feel when faced with nature’s wondrous magnitude. Yet the artist seems to chafe at traditional landscape photographs. In her seven-minute video Drafts (2016), we see Lee’s hands at the top of the screen. Physically inserting herself into the picture this way, she refers to the ancestral traumas the landscape contains. Lee performs a sort of slow montage, creating a litany of provocations in the form of landscape images. One after another, the pictures are placed on a flat surface, slowly yet almost carelessly. Formulaic images of glaciers, layered bands of red rock, sunrises and sunsets, flowering plants, and various galaxies are punctuated by shots of dramatic natural events: volcanic eruptions, storms. The only sound is the rustling and rending of paper. Tearing, cutting, and folding these beautiful views, Lee gracefully refutes, among other things, the role photography played in the displacement of people by misleadingly depicting the American West as “pure” or “unaltered.”
This article appears in the May/June 2021 issue, pp. 72–73.