Simpson, Lorna

▪ 2008

born Aug. 13, 1960, Brooklyn, N.Y.

      With her work featured in 2007 in a 20-year retrospective at the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City, Lorna Simpson had completed the transition from provocative young photographer to one of the most influential multimedia artists working in the U.S. During a career that saw her work evolve from documentary photography to studio shots to film and video, Simpson explored stereotypes of race and gender, most often with an emphasis on African American women.

      Simpson, an only child who took an interest in art at an early age, attended the High School of Art and Design in New York City. As an undergraduate at the New York School of Visual Arts, she studied painting at first but switched to photography before receiving her B.F.A. (1982).

      After graduation she traveled to Europe and Africa, where she not only developed her skill at documentary photography but also began to wonder how she could expand beyond the limitations of the genre, which she felt offered a primarily voyeuristic experience for the artist and the viewer. While earning an M.F.A. (1985) at the University of California, San Diego, she began experimenting with new ways to present her ideas in photographs and engage the viewer. What emerged was what became her signature technique: photo-text, which involved including brief passages of text that were often superimposed on the photographs and introduced new levels of meaning to the images. The images themselves were now posed studio shots, characterized by the use of human subjects, usually African American women, whose faces were hidden or obscured. Simpson's photography typically explored the perception of African American women in American culture. You're Fine, You're Hired (1988), using Polaroid prints framed in wood, depicted an African African woman lying on her side. To the left of the images was a list of terms relating to a physical exam; to the right, the words Secretarial and Position.

      By the late 1980s, Simpson's work was being displayed in solo exhibitions. In 1990 she became the first African American woman to exhibit at the Venice Biennale. By the mid-1990s, with her name firmly linked to photo-text, Simpson pushed in new directions to avoid what she characterized as a paralysis that could be created by outside expectations. While not abandoning photography, she turned her attention toward film and video installations. Her film Corridor (2003) juxtaposed the stories of two African American women—a U.S. Civil War-era runaway slave and a bored mid-20th-century housewife—and drew parallels between their lives of isolation.

      Among her awards and honours were a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship (1985), the Whitney Museum American Art Award (2001), and an Alphonse Fletcher Sr. fellowship (2006), in recognition of her work toward improving race relations in the U.S.

Anthony G. Craine

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Universalium. 2010.

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