RACE, IDENTITY, MEMORY AND HISTORY figure prominently in Lorna Simpson‘s practice, making her a natural choice for W magazine which reached out to the photographer to capture the cast of the Oscar-nominated “12 Years a Slave.” Even before it debuted in theaters, major buzz surrounded British artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen’s film. Critics and historians praised its raw authentic portrayal of slavery, its patient cinematography, compelling narrative, and the incredible, career-making performances of its stars. Simpson photographed the talented cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor with Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Adepero Oduye for the magazine’s annual art issue. Simpson, whose 30-year retrospective has been on view in Europe, spoke to Culture Type by phone about her concept for the shoot.
CULTURE TYPE: How did the W project come about?
LORNA SIMPSON: W came to me. They were familiar with my work and really loved a piece of mine called “Cloudscape” that is a video and asked, “What about doing a shoot in terms of portraiture that is very similar to “Cloudscape?” And I said, “Oh, that would be interesting to do.” And so that’s kind of how that came about. It is really using an iconographic element from my own work to shoot these portraits of the actors.
It is really using an iconographic element from my own work to shoot these portraits of the actors. — Lorna Simpson
Had you seen “12 Years a Slave” before you did the commission?
No. Actually I had not. At the same time as I was preparing for the shoot they were screening and I literally did not have the time. It was actually good in some ways that I didn’t see the film because I think everyone assumed I had, that I had some kind of agenda about how I was photographing them—which I did not, which is kind of funny. But I thought for the sake of the shoot and the interaction with the actors that it was good that I had not seen it.
Did you eventually see the film?
Yes, I did.
What did you think of it?
I thought it was a very interesting, visceral description of the atrocity of slavery. The story pivots around a central character, his going from being a free man to an enslaved person and then back again. I was familiar with that story and that individual as a historical narrative. That is Steve’s forte—filmmaking and art making in a way that it is this kind of visceral experience.
You’ve said you generally don’t do commercial projects. Why did you want to participate in W’s art issue?
I am a big fan of Steve McQueen’s work and I thought even before seeing it, in terms of knowing about his efforts toward making it, that it was important for him and an important film. Just based on that, I said, “Yes.”
Do you know the film’s director Steve McQueen?
So that was a big part of your motivation to do the shoot?
It’s been a decade since “Cloudscape.” When you revisit a concept, do you think about ways to perfect it or approach it differently?
Shooting still photography of four or five different people within one day that needs to capture their singularity, capture something about their persona and face, is a different thing. It was really just a matter of hopefully having the time to get all of that accomplished. I think the expectations on the other side, in terms of these subjects, are that this is a quick portrait, when in fact when you have a smoke machine and all of that it really just slows the shoot down technically. So that’s a little bit of a challenge, but I think it worked out well.
You used a smoke machine to create the fog for the W shoot?
Is that what you used for the video installation?
Yep. It was set up very similarly.
As an artist doing a commercial shoot, how do you make sure you are able to insert your creativity into the situation?
I have the luxury to control the shoot as I see fit. Although there are art directors and everybody from W magazine there and clothing and all of that and props and stuff–and who else, agents, there are a lot of people there with concerns—I think at this point in doing what I do, I am not so concerned with that. It’s just a thing of, how can I put it, remaining responsive to everyone, but not letting everyone control what is going on.
The actors are wearing Prada and Chanel in the photographs, but at the same time the clothes are very simple and unadorned, which is something you usually invoke in your other work. Was there any discussion about the clothes?
I didn’t have anything to do with the clothing, but I was aware that this is a part of what they do in terms of their presentation of personalities within W magazine. It is a fashion magazine at the end of the day. I wasn’t really that concerned with it because I was not asked to present the clothing. My only job was to present the individual, so in some ways it’s not as fashion-y as it could be, because if it were then the clothes would have been a little bit more in the foreground. The way that it’s shot, you really can’t tell what they have on.
I was not asked to present the clothing. My only job was to present the individual, so in some ways it’s not as fashion-y as it could be.
— Lorna Simpson
You photographed them in the same session? How long did it take?
Yes, consecutively. That took all day. By the time we finished and edited everything and downloaded everything from the computer, it went from about 8:30 am to about 8 pm — a 12-hour shoot.
You primarily use black and white and sepia tones in most of your photography and video work. Why did you decide to shoot the cast in black and white?
I grew up with photography learning black and white and color. Black and white for me is interchangeable. I don’t assign a particular a meaning to using black and white or color. Some projects I have done in color and some have been in black and white. It depends on what it is. Today, black and white is so rare to the visual experience that it stands out.
Can you describe the original “Cloudscape” featuring artist Terry Adkins, the concept for it?
I had done another piece called “Easy to Remember,” which is a piece with humming. I wanted to make a musical video piece that had to do with music that is emanating from the body. “Cloudscape” came as a piece thinking what would be another piece that would simply use the mechanism of the body to create a melody? The melody completely changes as the piece goes into reverse with the fog. It is the simplicity of going backwards and forward. And that’s “Cloudscape.”
Lorna Simpson by Joan Simon, et al. (Prestel, 216 pages) | Pages 140-141: “Cloudscape,” 2004 (video projection, black and white, sound 3:00 minutes).
And is he whistling?
He is whistling a segment, a small phrase from a hymn or a spiritual from the turn of the century that we found in a quote unquote Negro songbook from that era. It’s kind of playing with this musical score. It is not identifiable completely, but has enough of a melody that seems to be from a particular era. I didn’t want to use something completely recognizable—but it had that kind of cadence—to put something from the past into reverse. Also it kind of changes this musical phrasing melody when you put the material, the video, into reverse. I found it quite wonderful that it becomes something else.
Is there anything else about this shoot that you feel it is important to share?
I think it was lovely to participate in it. It’s a lovely moment with regard to the release of the film. In terms of a concept, I would not have returned to that on my own. But for that particular instance, I thought it turned out quite lovely.
Do you ever revisit work or was this a unique instance?
I revisit things thematically all the time. Work looks back and does different things and comments on itself—that, I am very familiar with. But I think that happens more in terms of concept and ideas or the kind of conceptualizing behind the piece, not so much its physical aspect in the way that this is. [The W shoot] really mimics another work. But, yes in terms of ideas, I might return to an idea structurally to do something else slightly differently with it.
For certain things they will choose artists because of the innovation they make in their own work. They are hoping that they can bring that to the pages of the magazine. — Lorna Simpson
The project is an interesting mix of photography, film and fashion—the intersection of art and culture.
The way that I have seen magazines use artists is that they really give them a broad palette in terms of ideas and approach. For certain things they will choose artists because of the innovation they make in their own work. They are hoping that they can bring that to the pages of the magazine.
How did you feel coming out of the W project, when you saw the final version that was published?
I thought the cast was amazingly beautiful. I think what came out of it are some really beautiful portraits. The portraits of the women are amazing and also the men. I was very, very pleased. CT
This interview has been condensed and edited.
“The Free and the Brave: Introducing the Cast of Steve McQueen’s Harrowing New Film “12 Years a Slave,” Photography by Lorna Simpson, W Magazine, December 2013/January 2014, pages 180-183.
Page 181: Detail of Adepero Oduye. This limited edition image, “Adepero Oduye, New York (W Magazine: 12 Years A Slave),” 2013 (Silver gelatin print), is for sale on Artsy, as part of a partnership with W magazine to benefit Save the Children’s Typhoon Haiyan Relief.