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