Nikki S Lee – voyeuristic? Exploitative?
It seems unrealistic to label Lee’s work voyeuristic – in its proper application the term requires that the viewer – the voyeur – be concealed from the object of their attention. The observed must not be aware of the observer otherwise there will exist a measure of collusion – ruinous for the experience the voyeur seeks, because the act must be fundamentally one of theft, of taking without permission.
This is clearly not the case in Lee’s work; those who appear with her are collaborators, in full knowledge of the effect she wishes to achieve. But perhaps the photographs are exploitative? Is she making use of her participants to their detriment? It doen’t seem so. She does not dress in a fashion which mocks or ridicules her associates. They have allowed her to join them dressed in what she considers to be a representation of herself as one of them. But obviously, she isn’t. She’s an interloper, a photographer, artist, pretty much most of the things they are probably not. Her outward appearance allows her to blend in with her surroundings and the casual observer would not notice anything untoward about her presence, but as informed viewers we know she’s not really one of them. That’s where the action lies, not in the image itself but in our consideration of it. The Museum of Contemporary Photography has it thus:
“Lee’s projects propose questions regarding identity and social behaviour. Do we choose our social groups consciously? How are we identified by other people? Is it possible for us to move between cultures? Lee believes that ‘essentially life itself is a performance. When we change our clothes to alter our appearance, the real act is the transformation of our way of expression—the outward expression of our psyche.’
” Museum of Contemporary Photography. http://www.mocp.org/detail.php?t=objects&type=browse&f=maker&s=Lee%2C+Nikki+S.&record=1 (accessed September 26, 2017).
In summary, Lee demonstrates that it is possible to dress up like other people, particularly those who have adopted a certain style, but we are not surprised to learn that just wearing identifiable clothing does not establish identity.
I want to comment on something else which has been bothering me. It feels almost heretical to bring it up so I will rely on another well established observer to set the ball rolling. The critic A.D.Coleman writes about photography theorists suggesting that they “eschew the act of attending closely to the specifics of said photographs or bodies of work, preferring instead to divagate on the presumed skein of relationships among them”
“Most people “doing theory” vis-a-vis photography exemplify this attitude. When they do talk about an image, they tend to discuss not its content but rather its contents, the literal subject matter, and their personal response thereto ― equivalent to assessing a Cézanne still life according to your preferences in fruit.
And I can’t manifest much interest in reading essays by, or talking about photography with, anyone who finds concentrating on the actual work itself bothersome and tedious and fundamentally beside the point.”
How to Talk Through Your Hat (2) « Photocritic International. Retrieved July 21, 2017, from Web site: http://www.nearbycafe.com/artandphoto/photocritic/2013/03/31/how-to-talk-through-your-hat-2/
Talking around a photograph rather than talking about it offers unlimited scope for discussion and theorising but I feel that equal, if not greater attention should be given to what appears in the frame. Stripped of any supporting text or ancillary information, how does it stack up as a photograph? It could be held that this is a pointless exercise, that the photographs were always intended to function with additional information, but I wonder if better photographs work better in any context than mediocre ones? Which leads to the qualitative evaluation of images, an endeavour which I expect would be met with the disdainful refrain “that’s not the point, it doesn’t matter whether the photograph is ‘good’ or not, it’s all about the context”
Trish Morrissey next. In the unlikely event of me enjoying a ‘day on the beach’ I would welcome Trish’s intervention, largely to break the tedium.
Her website proclaims:
” As in a more recent series of work, ‘Front’ (2005 to present), taken on British beaches where Morrissey inserts herself into other families, the image she makes is never the one that would go into the family album. She courts the awkwardness, unhappiness or anguish displayed on the body in spite of the smile fixed for a conventional ‘happy’ image.” Trish Morrissey. http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/vit-ph-2006.html (accessed September 26, 2017).
I don’t see unhappy, awkward or anguished in her body (posture), nor on those of the groups she has joined. Any such emotions are a carry-over, a projection of the background text. It’s a cute idea, one which would function with only that key bit of information (she’s a cuckoo), but I disagree about the album – if I had such a thing her photograph would definitely get its own page.
Photography is a broad church and is used by a wide variety of people for a multitude of purposes. This is just one such purpose and if it works effectively for Morrissey, Lee and others then it’s working as well as it needs to.