It could be argued that ‘all self-portraiture uses elements of impersonation, invention, mimicry or masquerade’, and that the purpose of using such elements is ‘to comment on humanist ideas of a fixed identity, illustrating how malleable the self can be (Bright, 2010: 10). Among those who have uses such strategies are ‘David Henry Brown Jr. (b. 1967), Nikki S. Lee (b. 1970), Adrian Piper (b. 1948), Sophie Calle (b. 1953)’ (Bright, 2010: 10).
Nikki S. Lee says in this regard:
I am interested in identity as it is affected or changed through social contexts, cultural categories or personal relationships. This interest began through personal experience. I realised that I changed between my surroundings in New York and Seoul, depending on whether I was with my family or friends (Bright, 2010: 211).
In Lee’s work ‘Projects’ (1997 – 2001) she transformed herself into ‘a tourist [see fig.2.], a Puerto Rican princess, a lesbian [see fig.6.], an East Village punk [see fig.4.], a table dancer [see fig.5.], A Wall Street yuppie [see fig.3.], and an old-age pensioner [see fig.1.]’ (Durden, 2014: 333). For each of her Projects, after entering into the new identity ‘she hands a point-and-shoot camera to someone in the group and has her photograph taken with them’ (Durden, 2014: 333).
Question: 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?
Lee’s latest series ‘Parts’ is informative when considering her work ‘Projects’. In this series she:
continues to explore this language of the snapshot and its dependency on narrative. She adds another layer of interpretation and places an importance on the reading of the images by removing sections of them – people, buildings, skylines. Parts are missing from each image, leaving us to wonder about their absence and the significance of that absence (McLeod, 2010).
In the earlier ‘Projects’ the ‘part that is missing’ (above) is the person, or identity of Lee herself. The manner in which Lee goes about placing herself (or a version of herself) into photographs in the ‘Projects’ series invites voyeuristic curiosity. For example a critic says of an image in the ‘The Drag Queen Project’:
This image and others like it in The Drag Queen Project, in which Lee’s drag queen appears at parties and bars with other drag queens and friends who seem to be on a sliding scale of fun and inebriation, also imply narratives of friendship and community that are universal, and quietly sneak into our subconscious as being unquestionably true. These pictures look like everyday snapshots that may mark an occasion on the personal timeline of the participants, but like an inside joke; those out of the loop miss the punch line. However, our voyeuristic curiosity is tickled and projected narratives fly to figure out the connections between the people in the photographs, to know what fabulous party they were at, to belong to and be included in this narrative, because we all know that these photos and identify with their purpose – to mark a time and place in our own personal histories and to remember the event, friend(s), or experience captured within the frame (McLeod, 2010).
Thus there is an element of exploitation on behalf of the viewer who would join in Lee’s process and enter into and then discard different group identities.
Lee herself recognises an element of exploitation in her practice, saying:
It can be hard to maintain friendships afterward – for example, I did The Swingers Project after Punk, and people could really see a difference. But also, my own personality has something to do with that. I’m not the type of person who loves to just ‘hang out’ (McKinney, 2006: 4).
Lee’s work comments on her own identity, the group identity of the people in any particular one of her Projects, and also on the nature of identity itself. Take for example a description of ‘The Lesbian Project’ (see fig.6.):
Seated alone in a gay bar in Manhattan, Nikki Lee stares out, expressionless, past the photographer while holding her cigarette and Amstel Light; behind her, two young women are caught in the midst of quick kiss as they hold each other’s hands. Wearing an unbuttoned blue checkered flannel and a taupe undershirt, Lee, her hair cropped short with a swooping curl across her forehead, has taken on a new persona by adopting a specifically “butch” aesthetic …. This snapshot from The Lesbian Project certainly functions as an example of Lee’s seamless adaptation of another subculture but, in her choice of portraying a “butch” lesbian, Lee has assumed the appearance and mannerisms of the opposite sex in a series which is in many ways similar to The Drag queen Project. Instead of the overtly feminine, male drag queen, Lee has now taken on the look of the masculine, female butch-lesbian (McKinney, 2006: 15).
McKinny continues later:
by taking on the persona of a “butch” lesbian, Lee underscores that a person’s sexual preference is entirely separate from his/her outward appearance. The short hair cut, the absence of makeup, the flannel shirt with brown corduroy slacks; these are all external attributes we deem masculine. Even Lee’s seated position, open with her legs positioned apart, is a mannerism that is often accepted, and expected, in males. When Lee, who is admittedly heterosexual, takes on the characteristics of a male, she displays how both masculine and feminine traits can be imitated, raising the possibility that they are always merely imitations. Because one’s sexual preference falls under the larger definition of identity, the instability found in the relationship between heterosexuality and homosexuality can be attributed to identity as a whole. There is no original personality trait as all are merely products of imitation, which, in turn, proves the concept of a true identity to be highly problematic (McKinney, 2006: 16).
In the above description, drawn from Lee’s photographs, of the cloths and mannerisms of a particular group (butch lesbian) it is clear that the images are commenting on group identity. However, as McKinney argues, such comment inevitably shades into a consideration of individual identity and the very concept of identity itself.
Bright, Susan (2010) Autofocus. The self-portrait in contemporary photography. London: Thames & Hudson.
Durden, Paul (2014) Photography Today. New York: Phaidon
McLeod, Dayna (2010) Stretching Identity to Fit: The Many Faces of Nikki S. Lee [online] At: http://cielvariablearchives.org/en/component/content/article/393-stretching-identity-to-fit-the-many-faces-of-nikki-s-lee.html (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
McKinney, Matthew R. (2006) How do I look: Identity and Photography in the Work of Nikki S. Lee [online] At: https://getd.libs.uga.edu/pdfs/mckinney_matthew_200612_ma.pdf (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
List of Illustrations
Figure 1. Lee, Nikki S. (1999) The Seniors Project (26) [Fujiflex print] At: http://www.tonkonow.com/images/nl_seniors26.jpg (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
Figure 2. Lee, Nikki S. (1997) The Tourist Project (10) [Fujiflex print] At: http://www.tonkonow.com/images/tourist10.jpg (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
Figure 3. Lee, Nikki S. (1998) The Yuppies Project (15) [Fujiflex print] At: http://www.tonkonow.com/images/yuppies15.jpg (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
Figure 4. Lee, Nikki S. (1997) The Punk Project (7) [Fujiflex print] At: http://www.tonkonow.com/images/punk7.jpg (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
Figure 5. Lee, Nikki S. (1998 -99) The Exotic Dancers Project (20) [Fujiflex print] At: http://www.tonkonow.com/images/nl_exoticdancer20.jpg (Accessed on: 20.01.15)
Figure 6. Lee, Nikki S. (1997) The Lesbian Project (11) At: http://image.ohmynews.com/down/images/1/rhusheesen_380533_1.jpg (Accessed on: 20.01.15)