• 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?
• Would you agree to Morrissey’s request if you were enjoying a day on the beach with your family? If not, why not?
• Morrissey uses self-portraiture in more of her work, namely Seven and The Failed Realist. Look at these projects online and make some notes in your learning log.
The first photographer we are asked to study is Nikki S. Lee, in order to consider if we feel her work is voyeuristic. Lee, born 1970 in South Korea, graduated first from a South Korean university before moving to New York to complete her masters. In an interview (1) Lee claims that she does not own a camera and thinks of herself as a conceptual artist using the services of photographers, as did Calle, to complete her work.
Her work is about the idea of identity and her views toward it. She uses the buddhist concept of thoughts that cause you to view yourself in other people’s shoes.
According to Par Dyna McLeod in this article Lee
… places herself within the frame of her images, transforming herself into the documented subject after constructing the context and setting the stage. She performs identity – reinventing herself with the stereotypes, media hype, codes, and clues that look into and out from a given community, infiltrates that community, and presents us with a new version of herself.
She completely immerses herself into the adopted identity in order to photograph the project. She has learned to skate for one project and lost weight for another. In this way she takes on the identity of those involved in the world she is documenting. Her aim in doing this work is to find out who she is. This removes a voyeuristic element from her work. However we must ask ourselves why we get drawn into her work. Are we, the vewers, the voyeurs? It depends, I feel, on the willingness of the participants in the project, to participate. Given the explicitness of her work it would be very difficult to ‘fake’ the results with actors rather than actual people from the sub culture she is investigating. The resulting images fulfill in us a certain voyeurism. We want to see how punks and drag queens live so we look, with interest, at her images. For Lee it appears to be about identifying who she is.
Her work is compared in McLeod’s article to Tehching Hsieh who lived outdoors in Manhatten for a year
he essentially performed homelessness – becoming invisible and anonymous to those who chose not to see him
These artists’ work helps them find their identity. Like most of us,they are a melting pot of selves. We often take on the identity of the place or group within which we find ourselves. Lee took this everyday experience to extremes, becoming part of the ‘group’ into which she fits herself. I think Lee is more concerned with her own identity than the identity of the groups. The technique makes us look at how we regard and label groups. We tend to package certain ‘types’ of people and label them according to our own prejudice. Lee is not doing this she is sitting alongside members of these groups living their life and in so doing she is discovering who she is.
Irish born Trish Morrissey slotted herself into family groups, assuming the role of one of the group, usually the mother, to create the series Front. Sarah Phillips interviewed Morrissey for The Guardian (3) where she picks out one of this series as Morrissey’s best ever image.
Morrissey explains when she saw the family on the Kent beach she knew it would make a beautiful images. She set it up, slotted herself into the group as the mother and the mother pressed the shutter. It looks totally natural. We would be convinced that she was indeed the mother. However when we look at the whole series Morrissey’s presence in each image pulls us up short. We realise how we can be ‘taken in’ by an image, believing it to be true.
I am sure I would not agree to Morrissey assuming my role in a family portrait on our beach. I would feel really odd clicking the shutter while she sat into my family group. This may be because I am a photographer but I feel it is more than that. I think I would feel she was stealing my identity and my place in my family.
Morrissey’s work Seven Years (2001-2004)
……. aims to deconstruct the trope of family photography by meticulously mimicking it. In the series, the title of which refers to the age gap between the artist and her elder sister, Morrissey functions as director, author and actor, staging herself and her sibling in tightly controlled, fictional mis en scene based on the conventions of family snapshots.
In order to construct images that appear to be authentic family photographs from the 1970s and 1980s, Morrissey uses period clothing and props, both her own and others, and the setting of her family’s house in Dublin. They assume different characters and roles in each image, utilizing body language to reveal the subtext of psychological tensions inherent in all family relations. The resulting photographs isolate telling moments in which the unconscious leaks out from behind the façade of the face and into the minute gestures of the body.
This sequence of images is almost painful for me having been born and raised in Dublin. I recognise the housing, the furniture and even the table of cakes. Despite being older than Morrissey I wore these clothes, as did my sister and brothers. I feel the tension between the sisters, me being the younger of two sisters. Trish’s bored face as she is persuaded to pose with her elder sister. It is the ‘ordinaryness’ of the surroundings which screams. The images could have come from my own family album.
The artists statement for the series The Failed Realist is as follows
Between the ages of four to six children are often more verbally than visually articulate. This means that what they wish to express through mark making is often beyond their physical skill. The psychologist Georges-Henri Luquet (1927/2001) called this The Failed Realist stage – 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. These drawings are uncorrupted by representational conventions. 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. Later on, painters of the modernist movement, such as Picasso, Miro, and Klee saw the drawings of children with their mixed perspectives and exaggerated features as a pure way of seeing. Picasso famously said ‘It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child’
This photographic series was made in collaboration with my daughter when she was between the ages of four and five years. Face painting is a rainy day activity that we both enjoy. Once her motor skills evolved sufficiently well for her to control a paintbrush, she wanted to paint me rather than be painted. Instead of the usual motifs of butterfly, or flower, she would decide to paint something from her immediate experience – a movie she had just watched, a social event, a right of passage, or a vivid dream. Beyond the innocence of the child’s intention, more sinister themes such as clowns, carnival and the grotesque are evoked by these mask like paintings.
The child’s imagination is based on her own immediate experiences. She is not limited to representing cats or tigers but uses what she has seen to change her mother’s face into the character she has seen..Her mother becomes some such fictional figure in the following image:
For the child her mother assumes this new identity.
- Nikki S. Lee | The Creators Project. 2016. Nikki S. Lee | The Creators Project. [ONLINE] Available at: http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/show/nikki-s-lee. [Accessed 28 February 2016].
- Stretching Identity to Fit: The Many Faces of Nikki S. Lee. 2016. Stretching Identity to Fit: The Many Faces of Nikki S. Lee. [ONLINE] Available at: http://cielvariablearchives.org/en/component/content/article/393-stretching-identity-to-fit-the-many-faces-of-nikki-s-lee.html. [Accessed 28 February 2016].
- Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach | Art and design | The Guardian. 2016. Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach | Art and design | The Guardian. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot. [Accessed 28 February 2016].