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New Photography
Madison Art Center, Madison, WI
Exhibition essay, 1995
Toby Kamps

In her Untitled Heads series, Jin Lee presents head-and-shoulders profile silhouettes of young women. The identically composed images are photograms made by positioning subject in front of a piece of photographic paper in the darkroom and casting light onto her. In their elegant cherry wood frames, the images harken back to seventeenth- and eighteenth- century silhouettes, many of which were made in a similar fashion using projected light and a translucent screen to define the outline of a face. Although Lee’s works are traditional in form, they also address a thoroughly contemporary set of concerns.

In their typologizing approach, Lee’s silhouettes recall the work of German photographer August Sander. In a project spanning much of the first half of this century, Sander attempted to collect and catalogue images of all the German "types" — from students to farmers to tycoons — all of whom he represented in natural settings and poses. Lee’s images also allude to historical attempts to employ photography to categorize, exoticize, or commodify individuals or groups of people. In the most sinister interpretations, her works suggest pseudoscientific attempts to use photography to connect physical characteristics to individual psychology. Clearly, Lee’s images link identity and the body. But her approach acknowledges the complex and problematic nature of this endeavor.

First, her blank white profiles deny the viewer the easy, voyeuristic access to images of female faces and bodies that is common in contemporary media culture. Instead of celebrating women as icons of beauty or sexuality, Lee’s heads and the related group of silhouetted fragments of her own body present female identity only in its outline. In a sense, the silhouettes are a type of image that semioticians call empty signifiers. Such signifiers serve as empty screens onto which the viewer can project their own meanings. In their openness to interpretation, Lee’s images demonstrate the difficulty of negotiating the gap between the self and others.

Whether we admit it or not, we all read the outward signs an individual presents to the world — skin color, facial expressions, body language, hair and clothing styles — and form opinions about the people we encounter. In Lee’s heads, much of this visual information in absent, but enough clues remain in her profiles for us to feel that we can speculate on the race, class and self-image of her subjects. To conjure up an image of the personalities behind the one-dimensional portraits, however, one must call upon a lifetime’s store of stereotypes and opinions. By making this usually unconscious and effortless process acknowledged, Lee reminds viewers of the pitfalls inherent in seeing and understanding another person.