African American Women and Photography
Lorna Simpson. "You're Fine," 1988; 4 color Polaroid prints, 15 engraved plastic plaques, 21 ceramic pieces (19 letters, 2 apostrophes). 40x103 in. overall. Courtesy of SALON 94 and the artist.
Lorna Simpson (b. 1960) was born in Brooklyn, New York where she continues to live and work. She earned a B.F.A (1983) in photography from the School of Visual Arts and an M.F.A. (1985) from University of California, San Diego, where Carrie Mae Weems was also studying at the time. Like Weems, Simpson started her career as a documentary street photographer. However, she later adopted a rigorous studio-based practice through which she constructed deceptively simple, large-scale, color photo-text installations to examine the ways in which race and gender function as interdependent political devices used to restrict African American women from full access to the rights and privileges enjoyed by the dominant citizenry. Working with large format Polaroid film, Simpson developed a signature style that included dressing her female models in basic white shift dresses and turning their backs to the cameras. In doing so, she defused the power of the gaze by denying its return from the model's side, underscoring that the body in the photograph possesses subjecthood (the political status of a full person), and that the audience, particularly white male viewers who dominate the spheres of political agency, has neither access to nor power over the model's subjecthood. She also would use multiples of one image within an installation, which, when combined with the other visual elements, confronts the presumed audience with the long-running myth that the African American community lacks diversity and forces them to consider whether the model is indeed the same person in each photograph. Like Adrian Piper and Carrie Mae Weems, Simpson employed text in her work; however, Simpson's use of text panels rather than photo-text collages suggests an interest in exploring how language has been used to frame the racial hierarchy and oppressive gender norms.