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Performing Identities

Artists ask, Who am I? Who are you? and demonstrate that the answers are not so simple.


May, June, July, August '57/'09 #8

Lorna Simpson
(American, born 1960)

2009. Twelve gelatin silver prints, Each 5 x 5" (12.7 x 12.7 cm)

Lorna Simpson describes 1957-2009 as “a project that happened kind of by accident.”1 Since she often works with vintage photographs, advertisements, and magazines, she was on eBay in search of material, when she came across a couple of black-and-white photographs of a young black woman posing alluringly. As it turned out, these were part of a much larger album of photographs, featuring this woman, and, occasionally, a young black man, in attractively staged poses. The sellers offered the entire album to Simpson. Struck by the images, though not yet sure what to do with them, she bought it.

When the album arrived, she hung the photographs in her studio, where they remained for months. Taken in 1957, in modest domestic and outdoor settings, most of them appeared to be inspired by the pin-up, mass-produced images of seductively posed actresses and models, widely circulated in the 1940s and 50s. But the identities of the photographer, the woman, and the man were unknown. Ultimately, Simpson decided to restage these images. Using herself as her model, she mimicked the settings, clothing, hairstyles, and poses of both the woman and the man and photographed herself using black-and-white film. She then paired her own photographs with the originals (for a total of 307 individually framed images) and has displayed them together in various arrangements.

As with much of her work, it is up to viewers to draw their own conclusions about the identities of the subjects of 1957-2009. A feminist and an African American woman, Simpson has been concerned with black female identity since the beginning of her career. By providing little or no information about the people who appear in her images, she poses challenging questions about how we perceive and make assumptions about others based upon their appearance—and upon stereotypes associated with aspects of identity like skin color, hair, gender, and clothing.

Lorna Simpson, quoted in “Lorna Simpson: Gathered,” Brooklyn Museum YouTube Channel, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16vxKCGb-rI.
Lorna Simpson, quoted in Sabine Mirlesse, “Interview with Lorna Simpson,” aperture, http://www.aperture.org/blog/interview-with-lorna-simpson/.
Lorna Simpson, quoted in Sabine Mirlesse, “Interview with Lorna Simpson,” aperture, http://www.aperture.org/blog/interview-with-lorna-simpson/.

1. A series of moving images, especially those recorded on film and projected onto a screen or other surface (noun); 2. A sheet or roll of a flexible transparent material coated with an emulsion sensitive to light and used to capture an image for a photograph or film (noun); 3. To record on film or video using a movie camera (verb).

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

Standardized and oversimplified assumptions about specific social groups.

The context or environment in which a situation occurs.

The way a figure is positioned.

1. A detailed three-dimensional representation, usually built to scale, of another, often larger, object. In architecture, a three-dimensional representation of a concept or design for a building; 2. A person who poses for an artist.

The materials used to create a work of art, and the categorization of art based on the materials used (for example, painting [or more specifically, watercolor], drawing, sculpture).

When the Artist Becomes the Subject
Though Lorna Simpson’s photographs, films, and works on paper are often centered upon African Americans and their identities, she had never included herself in her images—until she made 1957-2009. “I started really stepping in front of the camera with 1957–2009, which was painful!” she declares. “It’s very artificial: I was imitating a woman’s body that is different from mine….I was less self-conscious, though, because my aim was to mirror her. But even then, I hated it at the beginning. Toward the end of the project I became more comfortable and it became less of a horrible chore.”2

When Words Meet Images
Distrustful of photographs as objective records, Simpson began pairing her photographs with evocative, fragmentary lines of text in the 1980s. Through such combinations, she demonstrates that photographs reflect the biases of the photographer and of viewers, who bring their own experiences to the understanding of an image. For the artist, mixing words and images, and working across mediums in general, enriches all of her projects: “Conceptually, I enjoy working in different mediums—outside my comfort zone and range of experience—and how that exploration expands the content of my work.”3