Erica Deeman’s monumental portrait series Silhouettes declares a powerful visualization of diasporic African women. Working in color but with a minimal palette reminiscent of classic black-and-white photography, Deeman elevates the formal grace of her subjects to the scale of modern-day icons.
The reverence of her portraits takes on particular poignancy amidst the current climate of brewing racial and social tensions. Deeman, born in the UK and currently living in San Francisco, has seen her work receive a flurry of attention over the past year. In 2015, several Silhouettes portraits were selected by SF Camerawork for their 2015 juried exhibition HEAT. Currently, a selection of Silhouettes is on view in the exhibition Collected at Pier 24 Photography in San Francisco.
SF Camerawork Director Heather Snider caught up with Erica Deeman to speak about her work and recent exhibitions.
Heather Snider (HS): How long have you been working on Silhouettes and what is the inspiration behind the work?
Erica Deeman (ED): I began working on Silhouettes in 2013 whilst studying in my second year of my BFA course. The first silhouette I created was during a different portrait session altogether. The lighting setup was traditional in exposure but through the viewfinder and without the strobes it rendered an altogether different, stronger vision. Intuitively I made that photograph and from there began researching and finding more subjects to grow the project.
I am driven by portraiture and the attempt to understand a person through the face. The Silhouettes series references the historical mediums of portraiture in sculpture, painting, and photography. The subjects are all women from the African Diaspora as am I, and the depiction of black femininity and identity underline the work. Moving to the United States has resulted in me reexamining my own identity and how I am evaluated through my own appearance. In some ways the work reflects my own journey and relationship with identity.
HS: What led you to enter this work into a juried show with the theme of HEAT?
ED: My interpretation focuses on the current social and cultural environment. In the greater context of society, there is a renewed passion and focus for civil rights. I believe we are at an important time politically where tough questions are being asked about how both people of color and women are treated and depicted. There is anger and an intense desire for change, much of which is visible in social and mainstream media. Silhouettes sits within this “heat.”
HS: What was your experience with the final exhibition at SF Camerawork?
ED: SF Camerawork pushes the medium of photography and I was very honored to be selected by the jurors to hang on their walls. The word “HEAT” seems so simple yet has such a wide interpretation. For me the curation of the show reflected the depth of the theme right through to installation.
It was my first group show and it gave me the opportunity share Silhouettes with a wider audience. I’m now connected with a greater intensity to the photo community in San Francisco as well as to four of the jurors. I invited and shared the opening night with one of the women within the photographs. The initial excitement and shared experience in making the image was continued right through to seeing her image framed and hanging on a wall.
HS: Tell me about the new show at Pier 24 Photography—how was your work selected for the exhibition?
ED: The current show at Pier 24 Photography is called Collected. The show discusses the importance of photography to the Bay Area and shares selected works from nine local collectors. The show highlights different collecting approaches, focus, and the deep and personal act of collecting. Silhouettes is featured as part of the Pilara Foundation, Pier 24 Photography’s own photography collection. The collection has over 4,000 photographs and focuses on portraiture, historic San Francisco and documentary photography. Dedicated galleries are given to Richard Learoyd and Hiroshi Sugimoto—two photographers the foundation has collected in depth, plus my own work as an emerging Bay Area photographer.
I have been a docent/intern at the Pier since 2013. I shared Silhouettes around 9 months into my internship with the Director, Chris McCall. He asked me some questions about the project, one of which was the scale I wanted to present the work. This resulted in me reshooting the project on medium-format film. Once I had a collection of images on medium format, I showed him the project again and we talked about producing a print at scale. Through a friend, I purchased a $20 LivingSocial voucher to print a 45in x 45in photograph from Lightwaves. When I showed the large photograph to Chris, I left it out in the curatorial room where the owner of the space Andy Pilara saw it and inquired whom it belonged to.
With their help I developed thirty, 45 in x 45 in photographs that were shown in a small pop-up show in May 2014. Subsequently, ten photographs were acquired for the collection. At the end of last year, when this show was being finalized, I was told that the work was to be shown as part of the Pier’s collection. It is thrilling to see the work installed and share it with so many people.
—Erica Deeman, interviewed by Heather Snider