Exercise: Project 2 Masquerades – Trish Morrissey

Exercise: 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 Years and The Failed Realist. Make notes on these projects in your learning log.

Trish Morrissey’s (1967-) photographs, like Nikki S. Lee, also include elements of performativity and blur boundaries of identity, reality and fiction. “Front” is a series of twelve images of friends and family groups at the English seaside (one was also shot in Melbourne). They seem to have a domestic vernacular, a family album appearance. Yet, when you look closely you notice that there is a face that is common to each of the images, someone who reappears in each of the different groupings but in different guises.

In constructing “Front” Morrissey was interested in identity but also boundaries, the beach being a metaphor for a liminal space between the chaos of nature as represented by the sea and the relative stability of the land behind. She also chose the beach because it is a space where it is common for groups to arrive and delineate their space, marking out a territory with towels, windbreaks, chairs and other objects denoting temporary ownership. The beach is a space where there can be new norms of behaviour and given that most people are partially clothed the beach goers are both voyeurs and exhibitionists at the same time.

These are collaborative photographs where Morrissey approached groups at the seafront and asked if she could stand in for one of the women in the group. She exchanged clothes with them and they took the photograph (Morrissey having set up the shot). In replacing a member of the group Morrissey breaches both a psychological and a physical boundary, stepping into someone else’s shoes physically and metaphorically.

She created the shots in dialogue with the groups and they were told about how the images would be used. Participants were informed the photographs would be part of an exhibition and a book. Like Lee she decided not to use model release forms. There was also a reciprocity built into the process because in exchange for their participation they were given a family or group photograph taken by Morrissey. In order to gain access she wandered the beach researching who she might approach, she also carried clothes with her to change into so she could appear part of the tribe before making her request.

As complicit participants the authorship of the work becomes shared.
Morrissey

It might have been interesting for Morrissey to contrast the photos of the original group with those showing her as the cuckoo in the nest to be able to really explore the changing identities and dynamics in the groups.

Would I have agreed to participating? Initially, I thought probably not. If I had been out for the day I might not have wanted to have been disturbed by this stranger with her camera. But on consideration I would have hoped I would have agreed not least to have been able to explore the differences I mention above – what would my family group have looked like with me replaced by someone else? How is my identity influenced by my social groups and what would have happened in replacing me by someone else in my clothing? Someone who would at the same time look familiar yet be unfamiliar. Would I have a sense of my own demise and departure from the group?

In terms of her other self-portraiture projects “Seven Years” also addresses the notion of the family album and to me continues the phototherapy/re-enactment photography (Spence & Martin, 1985) influences found in Morrissey’s earlier work in her parental home. In her review Flannery referred to it as autofiction:

Morrissey’s work is…extremely self-reflective. Not only is she examining the everyday fruits of her own chosen art medium in the hands of the layperson and the covert significance of these images, but Seven Years and the accompanying two video pieces imitate and deconstruct the parameters of her own family life as she saw it growing up. For this reason ‘autofiction’, a term normally associated with literature, seems appropriate.
Flannery, Circa Art Magazine, 2005

The Failed Realist feels very different in tone and shows Morrissey directly addressing the camera in her own right. The series was created some years after both Seven Years and Front. It is named after a psychological concept in child development coined by Georges-Henri Luquet (1927/2001) and refers to the stage where a child’s desire to represent their world visually is limited by their physical and cognitive capabilities. The series was made with Morrissey’s daughter, who between the ages of four and five enjoyed face painting but preferred painting her Mum over having her own face 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.
Morrissey

The face painting does evoke the sense of a mask with echoes perhaps of Morrissey’s earlier influence of Ralph Eugene Meatyard. As Morrissey states they are unusual motifs for the more familiar playfulness of face painting. Once again boundaries are being tested and shifted between mother and daughter (the latter painting the former rather than vice versa), between subject and camera, between reality and fantasy.

References

Spence, J., & Martin, R. (1985). New portraits for old: the use of the camera in therapy. Feminist Review, 19, 66-92.

http://www.rosymartin.info/performative_body.html
http://www.trishmorrissey.com/works_pages/work-tfr/statement.html

Trish Morrissey, Seven Years, Gallery of Photography, Dublin, 4 March to 3 April 2005

Project 2 Masquerades: Exercise – Nikki S. Lee

 

Exercise: 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?

Nikki S Lee was born Lee Seung-Hee in Korea in 1970, she adopted her new name in America in 1994 when she arrived in New York. Shifting identities has been a core part of her personal experience and practice. On first reading about and seeing Lee’s work I was curious about her motives and approach not least because in ‘Projects’ (1997-2001) she did appear to be working with some very particular subcultures or cultural groups. But these are not documentary photographs in the traditional sense because Lee was putting herself directly in the frame with each of the groups she was exploring. In fact she was not taking the photographs but giving compact cameras to friends or group members in order to create a particular vernacular. This allowed her to perform each of the identities she was assuming and in doing so to appear to be a part of the group she was with.

At the core of her work seems to be the notion of performativity, which for me makes the photographs one element of a larger ‘performance’ of identity and takes them beyond the consideration of her own personal identity. Although Lee does not seem to refer to a specific theoretical framework for her performativity her work suggests that it is being used in the sociological sense like that outlined by Goffman.

…the self [is] a performed character… not an organic thing that has specific location … [the performer and] his body merely provide the peg on which something of a collaborative manufacture will be hung for a time. (Goffman, 1956: 252-253)

The ‘Project’ performances unfolded over four-month periods where she spent three months researching the group and one month making the photographs. In creating this body of work Lee speaks of exploring the fluidity of identity between Eastern and Western cultures and also considering how the identities of those around us interrelate and influence our own identity. As she points out being Korean meant she was already an outsider to the wider American culture in which she was working.

In terms of her practice she says she did not direct or stage the photographs, they were taken in a snapshot mode as the group went about its usual activities. Lee concentrated on the emotional tone of the group in what she describes as an almost shamanic form. All the groups were aware she was an artist and of the work she was doing, they also had a choice about participating. She went back to the groups and shared the edited selections and says that everyone was receptive to the work. She even talks about one group giving her suggestions for the next group she should think about joining.

It seems to me that the question of whether Lee was being exploitative or even voyeuristic hinges on two things – the nature of the consent given by the participants in her projects and the way they are represented. Concerns about exploitation are nothing new to photography and have ranged from Winogrand and Arbus to Parr and Ballen. Lee talks about having considered the use of model release forms and in fact only used them with the Exotic Dancers Project because of the nudity element.

This selective use is linked to becoming part of the various groups and the disruptive nature of introducing the consent form after ‘hanging out’ with the group and forming relationships over a period of time. It demonstrates for me that she was not using the groups in a deliberately selfish or exploitative sense. Yes, they were ultimately for her work as an artist but the groups were in a position to refuse their participation. That does however surface the issue of informed consent which is something I will pick up in another post.

Lee speaks of working with cliché and using a compositional style that could be regarded as familiar to the viewer (i.e., family album and selfies) but it is also a multi-layered commentary on identity should you choose to look more deeply. I think it is this familiarity of form that contributes to a sense that they are not exploitative images – they could be images from the albums of the participants themselves, they just happen to include Lee as the ‘punctum’ (Barthes, 1999) or disruptive element.

In the true sense of voyeurism I am clear these images were neither overtly or covertly taken for sexual gratification. Nor do they seem to be based on some sordid fascination with sensational objects or subjects. The project on exotic dancers might be utilised by others in a voyeuristic sense which in some ways heightens the multiple meanings available through Lee’s images. Lee’s work does highlight that there is a fine line between exploration and exploitation and as photographers we need to be constantly mindful of these boundaries.

To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. (Sontag, 1979: 15)

References:

Are There Any Ethics in Street Photography?


Barthes, R. (1999). Camera Lucida. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux Inc.
Goffman, I. (1956). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.
Sontag, S. (1979). On Photography. London: Penguin.