Lorna Simpson is a significant figure in a generation of artists who came to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s whose work addresses issues of identity. Her practice, which includes photography, text, film and video, explores issues of race, gender and sexuality, often in the broader context of particular socio-political moments.
Photo Booth is a multi-part installation comprising fifty found photo booth portraits predominantly depicting black men and fifty ink drawings on paper of the same dimensions as the photographs. The elements are each individually framed and they are hung on the wall in a deliberately loose and irregular cloud-like shape.
The photographs are all small-scale black and white photo booth portraits taken in the 1940s. The historical specificity of the images was important to Simpson. She has said, ‘The ’40s, in American culture, were a tough time in terms of life, work, Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynchings. And so the nostalgia of how beautiful these portraits are is one thing, but the context of the era is important with respect to what was endured at the time’ (Simpson, quoted in ‘Lorna Simpson in conversation with Glenn Ligon’, Lorna Simposon: Ink, exhibition catalogue, Salon 94, New York 2008, p.67).
Most of the portraits depict black men and boys; however one photograph, which includes the handwritten text ‘Marie Adams’ in blue ink at the top of the image, shows a young woman with her hair pulled back wearing a dark jacket over a frilly blouse. Simpson bought selections of the images in bulk, and was surprised to find this image in a job lot described as ‘photo booth portraits of black men’. She decided to retain the image in the work; she has described this decision, saying ‘The spectre of gender comes back... It is an interesting group of men, but to find a woman in it who is assumed to be a man is also interesting’ (quoted in ‘Lorna Simpson in conversation with Glenn Ligon’, p.67).
The drawings that accompany the photographs are made in ink on paper. Glenn Ligon has pointed out how the abstract, layered shapes in the drawings recall the backs of photographs torn from albums: ‘When you pull a photograph out of an old album it often has black paper marks left on the back where the paper detached from the album. When I first saw the inkblots ... I thought [Simpson was] ... showing what was left over from pulling the portraits out of their contexts’ (Ligon quoted in ‘Lorna Simpson in conversation with Glenn Ligon’, p.66). The drawings also suggest Rorschach tests, implicitly inviting the viewer to interpret their amorphous imagery in a highly personal way. The Rorschach inkblot test is a psychological evaluation tool used to examine personality and emotional functioning by encouraging participants to make explicit the unconscious desires or fears they project on to the inkblots. By placing images recalling inkblots next to photo booth portraits, Simpson highlights the way in which all visual codes are read through the psychological projections of the viewer.
The combination of media in the work highlights the notion of authorship. The drawings are hand-made by Simpson, while the photographs are machine-made self-portraits produced by the sitters themselves. The juxtaposition of archival and new material complicates the question of artistic ownership.
Lorna Simposon: Ink, exhibition catalogue, Salon 94, New York 2008, reproduced in colour.
Lorna Simpson, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 2007.
Kellie Jones, Thelma Golden and Chrissie Iles, Lorna Simpson, London 2002.