Look at me: Photographs and Identity

Photographs are powerful objects that take us back to certain memories and places, even if we do not know anyone in the photo. Lorna Simpson uses the power of images in recalling memories in much of her work. Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Simpson attended the High School of Art And Design and the School of Visual Arts in New York before earning her MFA from University of California, San Diego. She became known in the 1980s for her work mixing text and images that challenged narrow views of race, gender, identity, and history. Her work still challenges preconceived ideas about these topics. [1]

Lorna Simpson: Gathered is an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum featuring a collections of vintage pictures collected from E-Bay and flea markets. The collections displayed in Gathered question history and unknowns of history by displaying photos of unidentified individuals. It asks what their history is, what their experiences are and if we remember them. It also calls into question representation of people of color in history.[2]

Gathered is displayed by the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art at the Brooklyn Museum. EASCFA is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of feminism and to educate the public and future generations on meaning of feminist art.[3] The EASFCA has done many exhibits featuring different artists and concepts but their main goal is to continue to educate visitors on the importance of feminist art and its affect on mainstream art over the last 40 years. Simpson’s work that challenges ideas of gender and even self identity as the photos displayed in the Sackler Center feature unknown subjects, mostly women but a few men, and shows us how our lack of knowledge about the subject causes us to reach conclusions about the subjects and their lives without knowing anything about the context in which the image was taken or identity of the subject, including gender identity, sexuality, location, or heritage.

One collection titled May June July August ‘57/’09 is comprised of photographs from 1957 paired with current recreations by the artist. The original photos are pinups taken in Los Angeles in 1957.[4] Each original photo was carefully recreated, using a grid to help layout the angles. The clothing was even chosen to carefully resemble, if not match, that in the original photograph. In the recreation Simpson acts as a doppelganger for the models, showing two people experiencing similar things, and displaying the same emotion. This plays with the ideas of identity and history, showing that two people can have similar experiences nearly 60 years apart. These photos also can show visitors that even without knowing anything about the subjects in the photos they can and will have notions or ideas about the subject, whether about the emotion that they are displaying, the setting they are in, or even who they might be and their identity. The education packet that goes with this collection asks that viewers look deeper and create a story about a particular picture and then think about what they actual reality of the subject might be and the reason for taking the photo.[5]

Lorna Simpson (American b. 1960) 1957-2009 interiors, detail. © 2009 Lorna Simpson. Courtesy of the artist and Salon 49, New York

In looking at the exhibit online many of the photos are hard to see individually, though the website does pull a few out. I struggled at first to see how these images are connected to identity, aside from the obvious recognition of oneself in the picture, but in writing this post the more I thought about it the more I recognized parts of myself in the images, especially those of the women with the piano. Being a pianist I have many memories of myself at a piano, or hearing one of my brothers’ play, or being in a lesson, or accompanying a group of children. I have many hours of laughter, work, and frustration on a piano bench. But at the end of the day I always loved it. The photo pairing that I recognized myself in the most features the artist and a young woman, sitting on a bench with an arm draped across the keys. Their smiles remind me of the joy playing gives me and how much I miss it sometimes, and while I don’t look like the artist or the model in anyway I can still see parts of my own identity in these photos; showing that identity doesn’t embody just what you look like but is all your memories, experiences, faults, emotions, and features gathered together.

[1] Lorna Simpson, Bio, http://www.lsimpsonstudio.com/#s=7&mi=11&pt=0&pi=6&p=-1&a=-1&at=0.

[2] Maya Valladeres, Teacher Resource Packet: Lorna Simpson: Gathered, Brooklyn Museum, 2011.

[3] Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, About. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/about/.

[4] Brooklyn Museum, Lorna Simpson: Gathered, https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/lorna_simpson.

[5] Maya Valladeres, Teacher Resource Packet: Lorna Simpson: Gathered, Brooklyn Museum, 2011.

One thought on “Look at me: Photographs and Identity

  1. This is a great way to link past and present. I like these sorts of ideas, blending art and history to connect people with times gone by. More of these seem to be cropping up lately, I’ll have to keep an eye out.

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