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On April 13, families participated in an Artist’s Choice workshop with Lorna Simpson whose work Please remind me of who I am (2009) was on view in the exhibition Blues for Smoke. The piece comprises a collection of historical images (from the early 1920s to the 1970s) of anonymous African American women posing for photo booth portraits. The portraits were found by Simpson in thrift stores and online. Simpson interspersed the photo booth images with abstract ink drawings inspired by a series of ink portraits that she was working on at the same time. As one looks from portrait to portrait, the drawings make us stop and consider whether we are looking at a photograph or drawing.
Simpson offered several interpretations of why the photographs might have been taken—for example, to be used as identification card image or sent to a loved one as a memento. Simpson elaborated on the importance of how the subjects positioned themselves in front of the camera using gesture or facial expression to communicate emotions. She described the process as if each person was “taking a self-portrait.”
The photographs and ink drawings in Please remind me of who I am (2009) are mounted in heavy bronze frames. Simpson handed out examples of the frames to help families understand why she uses them.
As parents and children held and felt the weight of the metal, Simpson explained that the heaviness of the frame was parallel in her mind to the importance of these pictures as weighty historical images upon which we base our memories.
Simpson stated that she wanted people to walk away with an appreciation for what seems to be a very ordinary style of photography. It is intimate and familiar to look at, but there is a beauty to it that can be valued, whether we know the people or not.
Inspired by their experience in the galleries, families created their own artworks in the Whitney Studio. Prior to the workshop, Simpson asked the group to bring old family photographs with them. She also contributed some photo booth images and other found images from thrift stores. Families could use these lost and unknown images alongside their own pictures in order to make connections between the two. Simpson encouraged families to play with composition and experiment with black ink to give their collages a heightened sense of cohesion. By looking closer and re-contextualizing the familiar and unfamiliar photographs, families created new meanings and visual narratives.
Billie Rae Vinson, Coordinator of Family Programs