Suzy Lake, Beauty at a Proper Distance/In Song, 2001–2002, three color transparencies in light boxes, each 55 × 48".

Suzy Lake, Beauty at a Proper Distance/In Song, 2001–2002, three color transparencies in light boxes, each 55 × 48".

Suzy Lake

Art Gallery of Ontario

Suzy Lake, Beauty at a Proper Distance/In Song, 2001–2002, three color transparencies in light boxes, each 55 × 48".

Hardly an introduction to a body of work that spans nearly half a century, “Introducing Suzy Lake,” a retrospective that honored the Detroit-born, Toronto-based photographer, emphasized the two driving forces that jointly determined the course this artist’s rich oeuvre would take: Lake’s steadfast engagement with photography and her provocative work with her own body. In Lake’s hands, the photographic medium is imbued with a strong material presence. Her 1970s works such as Suzy Lake as Gary William Smith, 1973–74, and ImPositions #1 and ImPositions #2, both 1977, demonstrate innovative postproduction skills. In the earlier work, a suite of four progressively altered photographs, the artist transforms her own face into that of fellow artist Gary William Smith using numerous darkroom exposures and chemical techniques, while in the “ImPOSITIONS” series, 1977, she depicts herself trapped between two walls, accomplishing this visual illusion by stretching the heat-softened film negative both horizontally and vertically to compress the distance between the walls and her body while lengthening their height, the trick serving to emphasize the claustrophobic feeling of these body-size photographs. This effect was further accentuated by her decision to exhibit the prints, stretched to varying degrees, in a rhythmic sequence such that the large-format prints of differing sizes, justified at their bottom edge, collectively surrounded the viewer.

As Lake described in a video that was recorded in collaboration with AGO and presented on display here, her work is grounded in her formative experience as a resident of 1960s Detroit, and particularly in her participation in civil- and women’s-rights groups at a time when—as she pointed out in conversation—there was little or no attention being paid to these issues by the American government. In 1967, Lake witnessed the city’s race riots, which drew the nation’s attention to the endemic injustices experienced by Detroit’s black population even as the violence undermined, and to some extent undid, the efforts of earlier peaceful protests. As an activist herself, she understood the riots as directly correlated to the greater, turbulent generational rejection of the conservative status quo of the preceding McCarthy era. Consequently, her experience in Detroit grounded her decision to use the medium of performance to evaluate which gestures could represent meaning without coming across as agitprop.

The social implications of beauty norms were noted in the context of the Detroit riots by sociologist and future United States senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In his memorable appearance on the NBC News special report Summer of ’67: What We Learned of that year, he asserted that true equality for black Americans, the equality that they sought, meant not only a parity of opportunities but the right to “equal self-esteem, for an equal sense of your own worth and value, for the fact that black was just as beautiful as white America; as anything else.” And this shift of focus to universal concerns about respect is precisely reflected in Lake’s work. She documents and manipulates her own physical appearance to unpack complex issues of social prejudice. In a direct challenge to pervasive notions of who is presented and how within the media, the artist offers us photographs reminiscent of commercial beauty portraiture, but ones that display her aging, unsmooth (and unretouched) body, exhibiting with unabashed verve the facial hair sprouting from her chin in Beauty at a Proper Distance/In Song, 2001–2002. Her photographed body serves as a representative for an appreciation of individuality that extends beyond restrictive ideas of beauty. By exposing herself, Lake demonstrates how powerful—and crucial—considerate representation of an individual can be.

Sylwia Serafinowicz