Surprisingly, I found this section very engaging and it was rewarding to see the links with other reading and study visits from the FiP and EYV courses. I find it so interesting to see how and why photographers portray themselves as others , there is always so much to read and so much to think about. So for this writing I am working from my notes written in my course notes.
Nikki S Lee has made a wide variety of work within the self portrait genres. There is Layers, which I talked about previously – fascinating work where she layers street portraits on translucent paper. Then she does the same thing in a different city and/or continent. I think this is clever because she’s juxtaposing identity and place, and showing herself through the sketches of inhabitants of those places. I also looked briefly at some of her “fake documentary” work where she constructed an hour long film of fake Nikkis, (I have not watched the film yet). This made me think of Sophie Calle, for example when Sophie asks her mother to hire a private detective to tail her and record her actions. I was therefore quite curious to have a look at the Projects series.
In this series Lee joins various groups, working to fit in visually, and has a group photograph taken either by a member of the group or by a passer by. The camera used is a basic point and shoot. Some of the work left me quite uncomfortable and I think it could be considered voyeuristic or exploitative. This is interesting, because I don’t think I don’t think she takes on a specific identity, she takes on the generic trappings and mannerisms of a group identity, but not an actual named person. Compare this to Trish Morrisey’s beach portraits in Front, where she substitutes herself for an actual family member, or Hans Eijkelboom’s With My Family where he rang random doorbells during the working day and asked to have his photograph taken with the partner and children who were at home, substituting himself for the father in these diverse families . These are actual people, with partners, children and postcodes, and yet I find it less troubling than Lee’s projects.
I think the thing with Lee’s work is firstly that some of it (eg Hispanic Project and HipHop Project) opens her up to comments of using “brown face”. We are fairly comfortable with the idea of taking on another gender, or another identity, but taking on another ethnicity is fraught with the potential for different interpretations than that intended by the artist. I looked at the work of other photographers I’ve encountered who’ve done this. Cindy Sherman made black face work for her Bus Riders series, and has since commented that she was very young when she made the work and unaware of potential offense. Martha Wilson, a white woman, made work where she was half made up as Michelle Obama in Martha Meets Michelle Halfway.
In an interview Wilson said : “I’ll wear a girdle—that’s for damn sure! And I’m hiring a make-up artist who is going to make me up. Clifford and I had discussions about blackface. We’re not going to do blackface, but I’m going to try to wear Michelle’s skin tone.” Elsewhere, on the Contemptorary website, there is a post discussing Nikki S Lee’s Projects (change in font not intentional): “Darkening one’s skin to pose for a series of photographs in a community one has no affinity with, does not belong to, and as an entertainment project with ongoing profit plan—this is not an interpretation of blackface. It’s blackface.”
So is there a difference, effectively, between Cindy Sherman’s blackface and an employed makeup artist who is reproducing a known woman’s skin tone? That blog post is a very interesting one to read, it describes how Lee’s work is about the visible surface, not the underlying structures. Lee talks about the changes that she makes to acquire the patina of a new identity (tanning salons, prosthetics, make-up, dance classes….) and we don’t really learn anything about the people she is photographed with, the ones who have that identity to their core. Who’s the woman that Lee is kissing in The Lesbian Project? What’s the story of the older women in The Senior Project?
Perhaps in this instance we are moving into areas of gaze and privilege, which I haven’t really learned much about yet. Personally I struggle with it – I’m trying to imagine the Twitter response if a photographer of colour were to use “whiteface” to represent a First Lady such as Melania Trump. Martha Wilson has made photographs and performance pieces about herself as various first ladies. Stepping briefly away from self portrait work, Maxine Helfman, a white photographer, put black women in blackface then photographed them dressed as Geishas. Then I find myself wondering what sort of work men have made in this area and I realise that this is probably an investigation to follow another day. There’s such a complicated chain of meaning as we move through ethnicities from that of the person who conceives the work, the person in the work (actual ethnicity and depicted ethnicity) and the people who are viewing the work. I do think that this series of Lee’s is not so much about what she is as what she isn’t, and somehow that leaves me feeling slightly hollow after viewing the work. It’s very much about the outer surface, about “Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be….”
Trish Morrisey’s work I have always found interesting. I was absolutely spell-bound by her Ten People in a Suitcase series, where she responded to the archive of a Finnish paper mill town. I don’t know what it is about this series that draws me in every single time. I can mostly tell that it’s Trish, she leans between genders easily enough. She brings the town to life by reconstructing events and people from its 30,000 image archive, it’s almost as if she is channeling an entire town over decades of its existence.
Seven Years engaged me too, I hadn’t seen it before yet the images are so familiar to me – the family photograph album filled with 60s 70s 80s and 90s portraits of me and my four siblings, the way that the images honestly tell how well we were getting on at that particular moment. The images of my parents holding precious new babies as we kept on turning up. Even as full-size grown ups I swear we still see each other in our handmade dresses on Cornish beaches. I think she must have a very accommodating sister to work with her portraying so many different identities. It made me think a bit of Gilllian Wearing’s work where she uses masks to show other members of her family, whereas in Morrisey’s she and her sister are unmasked but still manage to portray the family member through costume choice, mannerism and actions/scenarios rather than Wearing’s formal portraits.
Failed Realist made me laugh. I suppose it’s that moment of recognition of something that you do with a small child on a rainy afternoon, remembering a friend of mine who answered the door to the DPD man in Princess Leia facepaint applied by her six year old. I think the work is about her daughter rather than about her. I’d never really thought about how small children see identity and this work made me think about that. I didn’t find it as compelling as her other works.
I would probably decline an invitation for Trish to replace me in a beach-side portrait and I know for sure that my husband would. I would be curious though. I did an exercise for FiP where I removed my shoes from the family shoe rack and photographed it with all the gaps, and it was actually quite disturbing to see my absence from such a familiar scene.
Despite writing so much I haven’t yet mentioned some of my favourite self portrait masquerade – the Roberta Breitmore Series by Lynne Hershman Leeson, made from 1974 to 1978. In this series, Lynne not only constructs an entire new identity with make up etc but this identity actually exists via an issued credit card, a driving license, letters, dental records, an apartment…. I saw some of this work at the Feminist Avant Garde of the 1970s show at the Photographers Gallery. It really made me think about identity – how do we know what is true, what is constructed? The constructed can acquire all the trappings of the true. Perhaps we think of a photograph as true, despite everything we know about manipulation, but identity verification now is based on other things as well as photographs – from copies of utility bills to biometric data taken from our passport photographs. The actual photographs and personal appearances of Roberta Breitmore were almost just the icing on the cake, her identity was rooted in far more than the constructed photographs.