Although Lorna Simpson was trained in traditional photography techniques at the School of Visual Arts in New York, she began early on to explore more innovative approaches to the medium. She expanded the possibilities for black-and-white photography in a number of ways, the best known of which are her combinations of images and text. This conceptual technique forces viewers to meet the artist halfway in the interpretation of her often enigmatic creations.
Simpson believes that art, especially photography, has the ability to change the world for the better. But the issues addressed in her work are not easy ones. She alludes racism, slavery, and other aspects of African-American experience in society. These concerns are not presented in a straightforward or aggressive manner; instead, Simpson uses an approach filled with metaphor, suggestion, and biography. Her inspiration stems from her own experience, the current political climate, and African-American history. Although her work falls within the narrative tradition prevalent in African-American art, it is narrative open to many different interpretations. Her messages are both personal and universal at the same time and addressed to people of all races.
One of Simpson’s major themes is the situation of black women in society; she shows them at times as victims, sometimes as protagonists, and often as survivors. Through concern for their lack of identity, she focuses on attempts to articulate the experience of these anonymous women, hoping that through the images viewers will be able to share and thereby begin to understand, their view of the world.
The Gallery’s work, Counting, contains three images: a fragment of a woman’s body, a small brick hut, and a group of braids. The figure is anonymous and wears a white shift, Simpson’s preferred costume for her models. She likes the simplicity; she believes that it indicates what she terms "femaleness," without bringing up issues of fashion; and she also likes the fact that there are many possible interpretations for such an outfit. The times to the right of the figure might indicate work shifts, but the schedules are unrealistic if considered closely. Other possibilities for what they might mean are open to viewer interpretation.
The central image shows a smoke house in South Carolina that was also used as a slave hut. This adds a reference to the previous status of African-American women in this country, where slavery was first acknowledged about 310 years ago (as indicated by the number in the box to the left). It can be inferred that perhaps the number of bricks listed is the number of bricks used in the construction of the building.
Simpson first began putting hair in her work around 1990, and it can lead to many different interpretations. The only clue she provides to viewers is an accounting of the number of twists, braids, and locks. It has been suggested that the hair represents the age of an old woman, presumably one who has seen and experienced much in her lifetime.
The sole guidance viewers receive to help them to interpret the three images as a whole is the title, Counting. Simpson said about the interpretation of her work: "I would hate to think that my work is perceived as a portrayal of victimization. It is not enough for me to relate an experience through the work only to have a viewer say ‘Oh, that’s too bad,’ and walk away from it. I want to relate the dynamics of a situation, both how that situation occurs and how it affects people’s lives. In another sense, the work is not answer-oriented. It’s intentionally left open-ended. There’s not a resolution that just solves everything." Viewers are left to draw their own conclusions and to learn something in the process.
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