To Prove That I Exist: Melissa Shook’s Search for Self

Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). “December 1, 1972,” Gelatin Silver print, 4 1/4 × 4 1/4 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2015.20.43.

Ultimately, identity is…a matter of constantly changing definitions and a delicate balance at best.

Melissa Shook
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). “December 13, 1972,” 1972. Gelatin Silver print, 4 1/4 × 4 1/4 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2015.20.55.

Well before the invention of camera phones or social media platforms, photographer Melissa Shook
(1939-2020) set herself the rigorous task of taking a self-portrait every day for one year. Struggling with an unreliable memory after the traumatic death of her mother, who died when Shook was twelve, the artist undertook this challenge to see if she could remember to take pictures every day. The days she failed to take a photo became just as important as the days she succeeded.

She began her project in December 1972. A single mother in her early 30s, Shook lived in a tenement apartment on the lower east side of New York City in an impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhood. As she described the experience, “My shaky sense of self had landed me in a dangerous area of New York with a young daughter to support and few skills to manage that huge task.” Photographic self-portraiture became the means through which Shook faced herself and her problems. As both photographer and subject, Shook investigated the dynamic possibilities for portraiture on both sides of her camera. Pursuing new ideas from month to month, Shook posed, scrutinized, and confronted herself as she explored her roles as a woman, a mother, and an artist. She worked intuitively, allowing herself the freedom to explore her creative imagination. As she noted, “It was important to let my unconscious, rather than my intellect, dictate the progression.”

Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). “February 3, 1973,” 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 5/16 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2015.20.104.

With the help and guidance of friend and fellow photographer Will Faller, who offered her the use of his darkroom to develop film and make prints, Shook worked on her project between her day job and her daughter Krissy’s school schedule. She staged all the photographs in her spare, sparsely furnished apartment, using natural light, a medium-format camera, a tripod, and a self-timer. Shook posed nude and clothed as she experimented with framing, light, movement, and facial expression. Though most of her self-portraits focus exclusively on Shook, a few images include friends and neighbors. Krissy figures prominently, especially in the summer months when she was home from school. The cumulative portrait that emerges represents a unique exploration of selfhood that reflects the malleable nature of identity.

Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). “March 19, 1973,” 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 1/2 × 4 3/8 inches. he Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2015.20.147.

Though rooted in the events of her life, Shook’s search for self-identity resonated with the experiences of others who came of age during the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As many women looked to redefine themselves while challenging gender-biased laws and social limitations, Shook sought her own answers to these personal and political questions. As she once wrote: “I think the issue of identity often lies in a profound and unnoticed dissociation from oneself … the strength of the serial portrait is in just this distance, this alienation.” Shook’s project aimed to affirm her presence in the world and, in her words, “to prove that I exist.”

Though several female artists, including Cindy Sherman and Francesa Woodman, made self-portraiture a cornerstone of their photographic practice in the mid to late 1970s, Shook’s series remains less widely known and predates the work of those contemporaries. Her reticence to share the work with broader audiences at the time of its making certainly contributed to this oversight. It was in fact the prospect of having a group of images published in the photography periodical Camera 35 that prompted Shook to abruptly cease the project in August of 1973.

In today’s selfie-saturated world, however, Shook’s work is ripe for rediscovery. The technology that facilitates the making and sharing of daily self-portraits with networked audiences differs tremendously from Shook’s working methods. However, the impulse to use photography as a means to craft and communicate our identities, and to arrest fleeting emotions and expressions, remains remarkably unchanged.

In 2015, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art received one of only two known sets of Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits as a gift from the Hall Family Foundation. This exhibition marks the first time a full set of her serial portraits will be on view in a museum. “To Prove that I Exist: Melissa Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, 1972-1973” opens March 9 and runs through August 4, 2024, at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Organized by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, this exhibition is supported by the Hall Family Foundation.

–April M. Watson, Senior Curator, Photography

CategoriesArts Consortium

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