Nikki S. Lee is a Korean born photographer who earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography in Korea. She then moved to the United States, completed an undergraduate degree in commercial photography and went on to obtain her Master of Arts in photography at the New York University.
Masquerade photography is all about putting on a disguise or adopting a role in order to say something about the world, be it political, fantasy or personal. Masquerade allows for role play and it is often easier to say something controversial when in disguise. Lee is well-known for pushing the boundaries of identity and culture in her self-portraits. In her Projects series she identifies a subculture, researches the group and integrates with that group for a period of about three months, adopting their dress and mannerisms and customs. Once she feels that she has assimilated into the group successfully she asks a random stranger passing by or a friend to take a photograph of her with her new “friends”. Her camera of choice for this series was a simple point and shoot camera as she wanted the photographs to look like snapshots.
She performs identity – reinventing herself with the stereotypes, media hype, codes, and clues that look into and out from a given community, infiltrates that community, and presents us with a new version of herself.
Lee evaluates her work on two criteria, namely how successfully she has managed to integrate herself into the subculture group she has chosen and the believability of the taken photograph. It is often said that to form a new habit takes twenty one days, so the mere act of living within a specific subculture for three months would make Lee’s performance of the ‘new’ identity quite authentic. I do have to wonder, as an aside though, if she felt comfortable in all those subcultures. I believe that the very act of handing the camera over to a someone else to take the photograph is probably sufficient proof of her comfort in her new identity.
Looking at individual photos of Lee’s Projects series we are not really aware of the subtle anomaly present i.e. Lee herself. But once we put the images together and look at them as a whole we become aware of Lee and start to look for her in her new, changing identity. We begin to see that identify is fluid, ever changing. It is through her relationships with her friends that she comes to terms with her own identity.
McLeod, Dayna. Stretching Identity to Fit: The Many Faces of Nikki S. Lee [online] Ciel Variable Archives. Available from: http://cielvariablearchives.org/en/component/content/article/393-stretching-identity-to-fit-the-many-faces-of-nikki-s-lee.html [Accessed 15 October, 2015]
Photographer Nikki S. Lee Can Turn into Anyone [vidcast, online] The Creators Project 21/07/2010. 6 mins 47secs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oI8xpJItPVI (accessed 29/10/2015)
Allison, Amanda (2009). ‘Identity in Flux: Exploring the Work of Nikki S. Lee’ In: Art Education, Vol. 62, (No 1) pp. 25 – 31.
Bright, S. (2010). Auto Focus: The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography. London: Thames & Hudson
Lee, Nikki S [online]. National Museum of Women in the Arts. Available from: http://nmwa.org/explore/artist-profiles/nikki-s-lee [Accessed 15 October, 2015]