Is there any sense in which Lee’s work could be considered voyeuristic or even
exploitative? Is she commenting on her own identity, the group identity of the
people she photographs, or both?
I would say the risk in this work is that you could produce a series of stereotypes of how you perceive different types of people to be, based on your own beliefs and assumptions. I think the reason it works in this instance is because the artist Nikki S. Lee immersed herself within the different communities of people she involved in her Projects series, to take on the role or identity of this different character, she is herself underneath it all but someone else entirely on the surface layer.
I think her intention is merely to explore different aspects of identity and herself. There is an aspect of this in all of us I believe; we slightly shift our behaviour, how we act or interact depending on who we are around. There is a good quote illustrating this thought process of Nikki Lee in Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography page 211:
‘I am interested in identity as it is affected or changed through social contexts, cultural categories or personal relationships. This interest began through personal experience. I realised that I changed…..depending on whether I was with with my family or friends.’
Nikki S. Lee, Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography, page 211
There is a great breakdown of the image Hip Hop Project (1) 2001 by Nikki S. Lee in Photography the Whole Story. It really illustrates how the the artist assumes the role of the character through the use of make-up, wigs and clothing. Through spending time with the people within the ‘hip-hop subculture’ she has become a part of the group, sitting as one rather than as an outsider.
I feel she is saying more about feelings of her own identity, than any of the groups she has involved in the work. I think she is (indirectly) asking us to reflect on our own identities, who we truly are.
Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach
with your family? If not, why not?
No, probably not. I think it comes down to the individual really, whether you would to be involved or not. Maybe I’m a little reserved about these kind of things and my boundary of personal space is some what larger than others, I am only prepared to allow some people into that personal space. The idea of a family portrait is that I’m happy with the people within that personal boundary, a stranger would not be welcome but that’s just my own point of view. I would think the request a little bit odd to be honest and would question her motivation. The concept that a stranger could fill the place of another family member is unsettling. This could all say more about me as an individual than about the artist herself but I can only relate the world that I see back to myself and my own experiences. Perhaps on further discussion with the artist I may change my mind but I seriously doubt it. I think the whole thing is a bit weird if I’m honest, maybe the unease in the viewer is a part of the whole concept. Its a really interesting project.
I read pages 208-209 of Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography in the Chapter titled ‘Performance’ which gives some background on Trish Morrissey and the Front project (2005-07), along with a selection of accompanying images. I would agree with the writer Susan Bright that the image ‘Hayley Coles, June 17th , 2006, 2005-07′ is one of the most ‘striking’ images in the project. I think the colour of the skin of the three different people in the image is quite a powerful reflection on the multiculturalism of the modern family, although we don’t see the real mother as we assume she is the one taking the image. The position of the mother figure enacted by the artist at the centre of the image, with the father and son either side speaks to me of the central role of the mother in the family unit and the image has a real classical or ‘mythical’ feel to it.
Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven Years and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects on-line and make some notes in your learning log.
Seven Years explores the family photograph; creating new fictitious or partially recreated, staged snapshots using props and clothing to give the images an ‘authentic feel’ from the 1970’s and 1980’s. The title references the 7 year difference in age between the artist and her eldest sibling, the artist and her sister play out different roles in the images. I can relate as I am the youngest, with two older siblings. I loved having an older brother and sister growing up to sort out the bully’s and generally looking out for me.
It’s impressive how Morrissey has recreated the look and feel of the era. On a recent visit to my parents house I remember seeing the many shelves of family photo albums, my Dad was a photography enthusiast, there are multiple albums of the family during the 1980’s when we lived in Australia and our return to the UK during the 1980’s and 1990’s. Sometimes my mum would take on the role of the photographer whilst my Dad was working away with work. Its interesting now to observe the difference in the style of photographer. Dad passed me down his old Sigma SA-1 film camera last year, I’m still determined to get it working and I’ve bought another one on-line.
I digress a little but my point really is that the photography album as a hard copy, a physical thing, has taken a back seat as people share endless photographs on-line using social media sites. My wife and I were talking a while back about how the photo album was a way of bringing people together, sharing your experiences, sharing the story behind the image, sitting down with another human and sharing your life and adventures. Its like when your folks get out the really old family photos and tell you the story behind the image, this is your great, great uncle, he was a fisherman, etc. That stuff fascinates me.
The Failed Realist is a series of self portraits of Morrissey in collaboration with her daughter, taken between Jan-Oct 2011. The head-shot images show Morrissey with a fairly deadpan look with a variety of different colourful face paintings created by her daughter between the ages of 4.5 to 5.5 years old taken from her own experiences ‘a movie she had just watched, a social event, a right of passage, or a vivid dream’. Morrissey references the Failed Realist by psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet (1927-2001) commenting that:
‘the child’s desire to represent his or her world is hampered by motor, cognitive and graphic obstacles that will be overcome with time, but for the moment, their interpretation is flawed. The Romantic artists thought this was a reflection of direct access to the expressive self and strove for a return to this innocence in their own painting.’ (Morrissey)
I think this project highlights the free imagination of a child expressing themselves, devoid of the filters, influences, prejudices and concerns of an adult.
Bright, S 2011. Art Photography Now (Second Edition). Thames & Hudson.
Bright, S 2010. Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. 0 Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd.
Hacking, J 2012. Photography: The Whole Story. 0 Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd.