By Tracy Armstead
Joan Simon with contributions by Naomi Beckwith, Marta Gili, Thomas J. Lax and Elvan Zabunyan
(DelMonico Books • Prestel, 2013)
This comprehensive retrospective of the work of Lorna Simpson spans three decades of her career as a multi-media artist. Historical references, sexual identity, and movement are evident throughout Ms. Simpson’s photos and videos.
Lorna Simpson’s photography questions how racial identity is perceived. Through poses, historical recreations, and text, she is able to present what seems to be a simply composed photo and give it more meaning. Waterbearer, (1986) is a stark black and white portrait of a woman photographed from behind, holding two pitchers, balancing in a pose similar to the scales of justice. We cannot see her face but are still drawn to her as we struggle to find a narrative. She is sparsely dressed in a white shift, which suggests the photo has some historical meaning. The text guides us but ultimately we are left with our own conclusion.
When asked about her thoughts on people assuming the subject was the artist herself, Simpson responded:
“… it is difficult to step into or observe the work from a universalist point of view. This is a figure that is representative and not specific, and therefore not me. That narrowness comes as part of how as a culture we think about race and representation.”
Joan Simon examines Simpson’s early work involving gestures and poses that are used to lead the viewer to create a narrative not explicitly shown. The models are often photographed from perspectives that eliminate any connection with their eyes. Ms. Simpson explains that photographing from the back “was a way to get viewers’ attention as well as to consciously withdraw what they might expect to see.”
In her film Corridor, (2003), Ms. Simpson carefully shows the parallels between two women living in different eras. One woman appears to be living during slavery, and the other in the 1950s. The stills are haunting, with an expectation that each are about to meet some fate, whether good or bad.
Corridor (Night), 2003
Corridor (Night III), 2003
The work that I spent the most time looking at was the series of album photos in the piece 1957-2009, (2009). The story behind the curation of these photos is as intriguing as the photos themselves. Ms. Simpson regularly purchased archival images from eBay. This led a collector to reach out to her about purchasing a photo album he had from the 1950s of a young African-American couple posing for modeling stills.
1957-2009, 2009 (details)
Ms. Simpson then recreated those photos by acting as her own model (a rarity in her work) and posing as both the male and female figures. Both sets of photos are presented in a collage—Ms. Simpson’s newly posed re-creations adjacent to the originals. It’s often hard to discern which is which. Once again, her use of gestures and poses provides an alternate, controlled environment that plays with past and present.
The book also highlights stills from Ms. Simpson’s video installations, produced in the 1990s and 2000s. Thomas J. Lax writes about the use of memory and movement in Momentum, (2010), where we see a group of dancers bathed in gold, in various postures—suggesting they are rehearsing or warming up for a performance.
Momentum, 2010 (installation view)
This piece was created from a childhood memory: “In terms of dance, at the moment I stood on stage in about 1972, aged about twelve, at the Lincoln Center with my gold bodysuit and gold toe shoes, I knew I’d prefer to be in the audience.” I wanted to see more stills from this video and get a better sense of the experience of the live installation.
The spreads devoted to stills from the video Chess, (2013), however, give the reader a clearer idea of the mirroring effect Ms. Simpson is trying to convey. This work was inspired by some of the photos seen in the earlier 1957-2009, where once again Ms. Simpson steps in front of the camera.
Chess, 2013 (still)
Lorna Simpson is a thought-provoking and masterful visual trip through a body of work by one of the most important African American artists.
All images © Lorna Simpson
TIMELESS: Photographs by Kamoinge
Edited by Anthony Barboza and Herb Robinson, Coedited by Vincent Alabiso, Foreword by Quincy Troupe
(Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. 2015)
Timeless celebrates fifty years of work by the African American photographers who form the photo collective Kamoinge. Although I was familiar with the works of Eli Reed, Anthony Barboza, Ming Smith, and Louis Draper, their participation in this group was new information to me.
THE FOUNDERS. Kamoinge, 1973
As the word Kamoinge means “a group of people acting together” in the African language Gikuyu, it aptly describes the spirit in which this collective was conceived. Fifteen photographers, led by Roy DeCarava, met regularly in galleries and homes to share and critique each other’s work. Louis Draper, a founding member, said this about the group: “Much was expected of us as photographers, our only criteria being the best effort within our capabilities. It was assumed that we would be regularly in attendance and that the production of photographs was of primary consideration.”
The photos in Timeless explore the universal black experience with evocative portraits and abstract images. The opening section, As One, includes a selection of black and white portraits that serves as a small taste of the broad range and voices within the group.
Inside Out at La Conga by Frank Stewart (2005)
Inside Out at La Conga by Frank Stewart (2005), is a portrait taken in Cuba and shows Kamoinge’s reach into cultures outside the US. In the photo, a young woman is peering with anticipation and worry through a glass door at a man who seems to be standing guard. The door is open only enough for another woman to force her fingers through, waiting for selection for the much-needed reward he is offering.
The book progresses to the Founders’ Portfolios which review a lot of the early work by members of the original group. A great number of these photos depict the lives of black people living in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. Some good examples are seen in Louis Draper’s portraits.
John Henry, 1960 by Louis Draper
He captures scenes of people seemingly caught in moments—like the three people sitting on a Lower East Side stoop in John Henry (1960), and the woman dressed in her Sunday best in Jesus (1964), which was shot at the Fulton Art Fair in Brooklyn.
Teenager, 1975 by Louis Draper
The young men photographed in Teenager (1975), however, are not caught in a moment; they fill the frame—posed defiantly, looking in the camera.
Windows, Movie Theater, 13th St. @ 3rd Ave. 2011 by Shawn W. Walker
Not all the work is documentary-style. Shawn W. Walker’s portfolio includes photo collages that are full of depth and texture. Windows, Movie Theater, 13th St. @ 3rd Ave. (2011), is a dark montage, full of shadows and tall buildings seemingly collapsing behind Matt Damon.
Windows, 5th Ave. @ 57th St. 2011 by Shawn W. Walker
Another image, Windows, 5th Ave. @ 57th St. (2011), is a solarized photo collage of marching leather-clad mannequins superimposed on images of tall buildings. The mannequins move through the background and foreground of the photo as they ascend the buildings. The work is reminiscent of a Max Ernst drawing.
A harmonious marriage of images await in the concluding section, Acting Together. These photos are paired to highlight the strong parallels and influences within the group’s work. Once again there are stark portraits and abstract representations that reflect common experiences.
Timeless is a profound retrospective of work that elevates the view of black culture over the last fifty years.
Tracy Armstead is a freelance digital media manager and a former visual editor and photo editor with The Wall Street Journal in New York. She is a recipient of a 2013 National Headliner Award for Newspapers spot news photography.
Tracy graduated from Emerson College with a bachelor’s degree in film and has completed design and marketing classes at New York University. She currently lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.