‘An intimate, nuanced exploration of selfhood’

Melissa Shook, “June 11 (?), 1973” (1973), gelatin silver print, 4 5/16 × 4 5/16”

Nelson-Atkins presents revelatory exhibit of self-portraits by New York photographer Melissa Shook

In the mid to late 1970s, the art world experienced a wave of serial self-portraiture by well-known artists including Eleanor Antin, Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman. Preceding them in this venture was photographer Melissa Shook, an artist of lesser renown whose contribution to the genre is explored in depth in a new exhibit at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Shook made approximately 200 self-portraits between December 1972 and August 1973 and dated each one, as seen in “March 29, 1973” (1973). The gelatin silver prints each measure roughly 4 x 4”.

In a recent conversation, April M. Watson, senior curator of photography at the Nelson, emphasized that while Shook is “not a household name,” her earlier work adds a different perspective to these later works, and garnered some valuable attention.

“To Prove that I Exist: Melissa Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, 1972-1973,” on view at the Nelson through Aug. 4, is a captivating installation of approximately 200 self-portraits Shook made between December 1972 and August 1973. This is the first museum exhibition featuring the full series, a gift to the museum in 2015 from the Hall Family Foundation.

Born in 1939 in New York, New York, Shook studied literature at Bard College (1957-61), writing and photography in Goddard College’s Adult Degree Program (1968), and taught photography from 1979 to 2005 at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She began “Daily Self-Portraits” Dec. 1, 1972, as a personal, creative challenge to photograph herself daily and explore her identity as a woman, single mother and emerging artist living within difficult, impoverished conditions in a tenement apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City with her 8-year-old daughter, Kristina (Krissy).

“February 3, 1973” (1973) is one of several images that include Shook’s daughter, Krissy.

Selections from the series were shown in 1975 at Foto Gallery in New York and MIT Creative Photography Gallery, and the Museum of Modern Art acquired 31 photos from the “Daily Self-Portraits” series in 1975, 11 of which were included in MOMA’s 1976 exhibition, “Photography: Recent Acquisitions, 1974-1976.”

“To Prove that I Exist” presents an enthralling chronology of small-scale gelatin silver prints (roughly 4 x 4”), framed individually and in small groupings, all dated by Shook beneath the border. Interspersed text panels contextualize Shook’s stylistic and conceptual shifts throughout the series, and relay important context, including her traumatic childhood and memory loss after losing her mother at age 12 to stomach cancer. One panel, “Marking Absence,” explains the inclusion of blank gray squares, which Shook printed and dated to mark the days she missed photographing herself.

“March 19, 1973” (1973), gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 × 4 3/8″

Shook used a medium format Hasselblad on a tripod to create multifaceted self-portraits almost daily in her apartment — clothed, nude, alone, with friends, with her cat and with Krissy — capturing wide-ranging moods, sensibilities and expression, often including one or more avocado plants. She smiles and laughs casually with friends in some, including her mentor, Will Faller, who provided vital access to his darkroom. Others suggest somber intensity through Shook’s furrowed gaze, formal repose with dramatic light, shadow and unconventional framing, and happiness with Krissy,

Minimal figural compositions invoking classical sculpture and lyrical close-ups of her face and hands are evocative and beautiful, while full-body images from late April throughout May reflect raw expressionism through gestural dance postures that are sometimes ungainly, even eerie. From late May through August, Krissy figures prominently in portraits with her mother, and individually at the conclusion of the series.

“March 26, 973” (1973), gelatin silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 3/8”

Melissa Shook died in 2020, three years before the 2023 publication of “Melissa Shook: Daily Self-Portraits 1972-1973.” Edited by Miyako Yoshinaga, the book includes the full series of self-portraits; an essay by media scholar Sally Stein, a longtime friend and champion of Shook’s work; and Shook’s chronology, compiled by Kristina Shook and Yoshinaga.

“When seen collectively, Shook’s remarkable body of work reveals an intimate, nuanced exploration of selfhood that we now see as prescient for its time,” notes Watson in the Nelson’s press release. This exhibition and accompanying publication present an amazing opportunity to learn, study and advance understanding of Shook’s pivotal work.

“To Prove that I Exist: Melissa Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, 1972-1973” continues at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak. St., through Aug. 4. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. The museum will present a gallery talk, “The Life and Work of Photographer Melissa Shook,” by art historian Sally Stein and Kristina Shook, Melissa Shook’s daughter, from 2 to 3:30 p.m. May 4 in Lens 2 and Gallery L11. For more information, 816.751.1278 or www.nelson-atkins.org.

All photos: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, gift of Hallmark Cards, inc., 2015

Heather Lustfeldt

Heather Lustfeldt is a writer, educator and arts professional with a passion for public program development and community engagement for audiences of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. Heather lives in Kansas City with her two sons.

Leave a Reply