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  • Look At Me:Self-Portrait Photography After Cindy Sherman
  • Jennifer Dalton (bio)
Nikki S. Lee, Anthony Goicolea, and David Henry Brown, Jr.

Any photographer working with self-portraiture today is necessarily working in the long shadow cast by Cindy Sherman. A rash of intelligent and enthusiastic responses to the challenge of her formidable precedent has recently appeared, generated by young artists clearly working with one eye on their distinguished precursor and the other--determined--in their lenses. Three strong voices emerge as most prominent among the young artists turning the camera on themselves and mining the fertile land so presciently staked out by Sherman, each grappling with his or her own face, identity, and vanity. These are the self-camouflage artist Nikki S. Lee, adolescence-obsessed Anthony Goicolea, and celebrity hound David Henry Brown, Jr.

Rather than asserting her individuality, identity, and physical presence, Nikki S. Lee's self-portraiture strives to make herself effectively invisible. For her photographs, Lee approaches various social groups, befriends them, and enlists their cooperation and collaboration in physically transforming herself into a member of each. In series of photographs with titles such as "The Yuppie Project," "The Young Japanese Project," "The Drag Queen Project," and "The Seniors Project," the Korean-American Lee visually blends into divergent subcultures, pointing up the constructed nature of identity to amusing, as well as sober, effect.

In blown-up, snapshot-style photographs, Lee can be spotted striking a pose with a group of swing dancers, in a pub at happy hour as a yuppie stockbroker, or cuddling with a tattooed young woman at a lesbian club. Though the immediate appeal of Lee's work is the one-liner of spotting Lee and decoding her masquerade (you could call it the "Where's Waldo?" effect), the artist brings a fresh and energetic spirit to what is often a deadly serious debate over assimilation and "passing." Those terms usually describe the process by which immigrants and members of other marginalized groups strive to enter mainstream culture, but Lee assimilates into both mainstream and marginal cultures with zeal and success, highlighting both the intricate visual markings and broader social functions of our cultural boundaries. [End Page 47]

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Figure 1.

Nikki S. Lee, The Drag Queen (5), 1997. Fujiflex print, 28-1/4" x 21-1/4". Photo: Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

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Figure 2.

Nikki S. Lee, The Yuppie Project (4), 1998. Fujiflex print, 21-1/4" x 28-1/4". Photo: Courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects.

[End Page 48]

The fact that a young Korean-American artist can be equally convincing as a Japanese hipster, yuppie stockbroker, Hispanic teenager, or Ohio trailer-park-dweller suggests that social identity has at least as much to do with conscious choices about clothing and hairstyle as with facial features and skin color. Lee has an uncanny ability to affect a pose with both her face and body: her Asian features are clearly visible in a group of whiter-than-white Ohio beer drinkers or Hispanic teenagers, but her posture and the look on her face say she belongs there, and we buy it. Her work argues that even the subcultures one is apparently born into, such as ethnic groups, are more socially fluid and self-subscribing than conventionally believed. Part of the strength of Lee's work derives from its empathetic energy; one gets the sense from her photographs that she likes meeting people through the project and briefly, but sincerely, identifying with them, and that they enjoy playing their part in her work. The performative aspect of her work requires her to look beyond the surface markings that define us to one another and keep us separated--while simultaneously riffing on those very markings.

Lee's photographs are obviously snapshots, complete with time/date stamp. Though enlarged to "art size," they retain the attendant strengths (a candid, documentary feel) and weaknesses (occasionally flat, banal compositions) that snapshots connote. The people in the photos are usually smiling and posing for the camera, apparently comfortable in their personal and social roles as, for instance, a young urban professional shooting the breeze...


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pp. 47-56
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