Women in Photography: Lorna Simpson

As a follow up to our intro on Berenice Abbott, another important pioneering female photographer we’re spotlighting for Women’s History Month, is African-American visual and multimedia artist, Lorna Simpson. Born in 1960, the Brooklyn native’s work revolves around young black women and explores themes of history, culture, race and gender identity through photographic portraiture. Over the past years however, the artist has brought drawing, painting and photo collaging into her toolkit to create some fascinating art.

Best known for her conceptual work Stereo Styles 1988, Simpson presents ten instant black and white film photographs of African-American women’s heads modeling hairstyles that were popular in the 80s. Their backs are turned to the viewer and we don’t see their faces suggesting that they could be adaptable to any narrative.

Words such as Daring, Sensible, Magnetic and Country Fresh are written between the images as if were an advertisement on hairstyles available. However, each image is not paired with a word description, which might enable the viewer to form their own opinion on what they are looking at.

Stereo Styles, 1988

Stereo Styles, 1988

Simpson’s conceptual photographic work continued to build on the themes of identity, race, history and memory in her work, Gathering – an exhibit of found photographs of mostly 1950s pinup images of young black women, paired alongside with her self-portrait recreating the exact same scenes.

1957-2009, interiors. 2009.

1957-2009, interiors. 2009.

The interplay of fact, fiction, history and identity comes to mind in this meaningful work comprised of found vintage images she procured from eBay and her own self-portraits.

Building on the theme of identity arrives Simpson’s recent book Lorna Simpson Collages – a collection of found photographs drawn from vintage magazines she skillfully collaged with colorful ink washes on paper. The vibrant and dream-like images Simpson created in this body of work continues to explore memory and identity of black women and their complex language of hair.

Author of the book writes:

In Lorna Simpson’s collages … black women’s heads of hair are galaxies unto themselves, solar systems, moonscapes, volcanic interiors … It is sinuous and cloudy and fully alive … Watercolor is the perfect medium for Simpson here because of how it holds light and appears to be translucent. But it is also a wash, a shadow cast over what we cannot know in these women.
— Elizabeth Alexander

"Top”, 2012. (to left) and “Unbroken” 2017. (to right)

In an interview with the Paris Review, Simpson explains that this work is:

a discovery I made of these old Ebony magazines belonging to my grandmother. I found them really satisfying to look at, because they’re so contextual … For me, the images hearken back to my childhood, but are also a lens through which to see the past 50 years in American history.
— Lorna Simpson

To learn more about Lorna Simpson, visit her website and browse her fascinating work.