Somewhere in Los Angeles in 1957, an attractive young black woman, perhaps a model or a would-be starlet, posed for a series of snapshots. Taken by an amateur, the black and white images show her posing pin-up style in chic clothing and high heels. She leans on a piano, she lies on a bed, she sits across from a chess set.
Photographer Lorna Simpson, who has been engaged for years with found and vernacular photography, found a few of the images on eBay and bought them. When the seller wrote her to say that he had a whole album, Simpson bought it too. According to Catherine J. Morris, the curator of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art and the organizer of Gathered, it was Simpson’s three-part installation at The Brooklyn Museum which was the first time that Simpson bought something not knowing what to do with it. Ultimately, Simpson decided to put herself in the photos, in some way trying to replicate the unknown woman’s experience. The modern images were all shot by Simpson’s daughter Zora.
The series -- a grid of some 300 white-framed and white-matted gelatin silver vintage and contemporary prints from May, June, July, and summer 1957 and 2009 -- is presented at the museum in its entirety for the first time. Since most of the interiors are non-descriptive, and since we know nothing about the young woman, we are left with many questions: Who was she and who was the photographer? Because the original photographs are quite uniform, it is likely that they were taken by the same photographer. Clearly, the appeal to Simpson and to the viewer is that there is so much room for one’s own interpretation. Unlike photos of well-known people, we are left to imagine what is missing.
Lorna Simpson made many discoveries when trying the replicate the poses, says Morris -- among them the fact that the woman was double-jointed, while Simpson is not.
The second installation in the show (of 80 images) is older work from Simpson’s photo booth series. Here, too, Simpson purchased images on eBay. Since the photo booth was invented in 1924, the individual images come from the 1920s to the 1970s from the period of the Great Migration. Most images were taken in studios and represented unfiltered self-portraits that the migrants might have sent home. While the frames are all bronze, the sizes vary, and there is even one colored photo with someone cut out.
Simpson asked that the art handlers hang the piece like a cloud. But, Morris said, when one handler asked, “Give me a cloud,” Simpson came and hung the pictures herself. Photos were hung first, followed by blank brass plates and small ghost-like images of gouache. “When you tear a photo out, it leaves a ghost behind -- a marker,” said Morris, explaining the inclusion of the gouache images.
Easy to Remember, the last piece in the show, is a video installation. Using the grid once again, Simpson asked 14 friends to hum the melody to "Easy to Remember," a Rogers & Hart song written for the movie Mississippi in 1935. The film -- a musical comedy set on a Mississippi River gambling steamboat -- starred W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby. John Coltrane wrote another version of the melody later. Simpson remembered the song from growing up, and she joined her friends in the performance, creating a 3 x 5 video grid of 15 synched lips humming the melody. The last lines of the song could well serve as the theme song for Gathered -- Simpson’s poignant and passionate juxtaposition of history, memory, and social mores:
“Each little moment
Is clear before me
And though it brings me regret
It’s easy to remember
But so hard to forget.”
Lorna Simpson's photography is on display at The Brooklyn Museum until August 21, 2011.