The brief for this exercise was to look at works by Nikki S Lee and Trish Morrissey…
Nikki S Lee
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 assume that Lee invited herself into the different groups she focusses on for her ‘Projects’ series; The Punk Project, the Tourist Project etc., as opposed to welcoming volunteers to participate, so for me the level of exploitation, if there was any, relates to how Lee negotiated her ‘acceptance’.
It’s curious to think what Lee said to her subjects to be so willingly accepted into their group, despite so blatantly parodying their appearance and gestures. A typical UK response would be ‘Are you taking the p***?’ but that would be more of a reflection of our cynical British defensiveness in the face of something different and boundary-pushing. But did the ‘Seniors’ have it explained that they would ultimately feature in an exhibition? Also what did ‘being accepted’ into a group really entail? An article on the subject by Brittany Carpenter of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, suggests that Lee worked for 2 to 3 months to be accepted into each social group. I’m sure she took time to get to know the members of the groups but what was the level of anticipation? Bingo every Weds with the Seniors? Attending gigs with the punks? Sharing the same hotel with the Tourists? And what is her relationship with these people now? I cannot really comment on the question of voyeurism/exploitation because there are so many unanswered questions about what happened in the months before and after the images were taken, and I think this is entirely deliberate by Lee.
I don’t think Lee is necessarily wanting to make a strong statement about the authenticity of photographs but maybe she does touch on it briefly. In the images where it is clearly plausible she is part of the group given her age and portrayal (The Yuppie, Tourist and Punk Project images above), we wouldn’t even notice her participation looking at the photos individually. We do however question their authenticity when the photos are viewed as part of a series and it’s evident in the Seniors Project that she’s not exactly decrepit.
I would like to think that Lee is commenting on our choices in life – which sub-groups we veer towards and become part of, our need to be part of a group in whatever form, the subtle ‘uniforms’ which we subconsciously take on to ‘fit’ with that group. As a forty-something year old female who might want to be out of that ‘oh God what should I wear?’ phase of life, continues to subscribe to the Fat Face/White Stuff casual, could-be-worn-by-a-teenager-as-well-as-a middle-aged-woman style… I would suggest that she is wanting to expand our horizons. She is telling us not to fall into an expected group as if it’s a natural course of life, but push us to extend our boundaries, maybe be more accepting of other groups on the basis that we are ourselves all made up of the same stuff underneath. I like how she has left us to interpret her images in the way we see fit.
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 above image entitled ‘Angela Reynish’, the woman that Trish Morrissey replaced in the photograph, is taken from Morrissey’s series ‘Front’, obviously a word play on her exploits on various beaches, swapping herself with, and wearing the clothes of, someone in the family group, before taking a photograph of that scene. I probably would not have accepted Morrissey’s request to swap. I think it is because I’m of the generation where half the box full of photographs of my childhood were those taken at Waxham in Norfolk, camping in a tent by the dunes with my mum, dad, sisters, and smattering of our 15 cousins and various aunts and uncles. These images are sacred! These photos would be some of the ones which would be ‘hoiked’ out in the event of a fire at the house. These are evidence of the cement which ties a family together, of the ‘always’ sunny summer holidays, and probably of our innate, instinctive protection of the family as a unit. It would have felt perverse to let Morrissey invade these images back then and in a sense it would feel equally as perverse to let her do this now:- whilst our use of photographs has changed dramatically since 30 years ago, there is still a place for these ‘historical’ family documents remaining untouched, even if nowadays they are digital and the volume of them has increased exponentially. Let us keep some things untampered with by art!
The Failed Realist
I enjoyed this series of Morrissey’s a lot more (this wouldn’t be difficult I hear you mutter…). This was Trish Morrissey’s collaboration with her daughter, highlighting the lag that 4 to 6 year olds have in developmental terms of what she calls ‘visual articulation’ compared to their ‘verbal articulation’, i.e. their ability to paint and draw, being reliant on less-well developed motor skills. I like how the face-painting on ‘Mum’ must have been created with a lot of laughter, mess and joy.. and the resulting Picasso-esque face is symbolic of the mother-daughter union. It’s also a statement about the submission of the mother to put the child first, of the lack of boundaries enabling the unleashed child to fully explore, express and be messily creative etc. This series has a heart to it and Morrissey’s rather stoic, blank expression almost emphasises the symbolic passing her creative baton to her daughter. It is effectively a self-portrait of them both.
I enjoyed the comical endeavour of Morrissey reproducing the photos of the 70s and 80s with her sister. Original memories and photos intact, unlike in ‘Front’ above, she sought to mimic the staging of events that warranted a family photo. These images of a laid table pre birthday celebration/cake cutting are direct replicas of tens of photos we have in our family. The 80s clothes of course verge on being a painful recollection! Again, the sense of fun in the creation of these photographs is evident alongside the obvious effort in generating an authentic reproduction, locating suitable props etc. I would need to bring out my wipe-clean pinafore dress, the knitted dresses that automatically rolled up above our knees at the hems that our mum using that weird knitting machine, and the brown ‘The Good Life’ crockery. The awkward ‘gangly’ teenager look and body stance was very evident in my old photos but this seems to have been lost with the passing of a generation today, so used to ‘selfies’ and being the subject of photos. These are very astute observations from Morrissey and the whole series of images made me very reflective of my own past.