Trish Morrissey is a photographer/artist/filmmaker who predominately uses performative, self-portraiture to make images that are rich in narrative potential and with strong contextual underpinning. In an interview with David Chandler, Morrissey describes how she explores the language of photography through her work, particularly through stories about families and women.
Camilla Brown describes Trish Morrissey’s practice as being performative with the recurring strategy of role play while also being rooted in the tradition and language of photography, particularly vernacular photographs:
“Morrissey’s style could be described as narrative documentary as it uses the conventions of portraiture and snap-shot photography whilst collapsing the distinction between fact and fiction. The artist always appears in her work, although at times she is hard to recognize which mines the territory of the family photograph.” (Brown, 2010)
Collaboration is a major facet of Morrissey’s practice and her work is often made in conjunction with others – variously family members or strangers.
In an exhibition review, Dan Rule describes Morrissey’s work as:
“performative, humorous and ultimately affecting…[the work] adopts a series of formal, familial and historical tropes, only to pick them apart at the seams.” (Rule, 2010)
Sharon Boothroyd describes Morrissey’s work as being situated between self-portraiture and performance:
“She is known for considering themes of identity with an arresting humour, and yet it is a humour underpinned with poignancy and pathos. So much so that the effect is sometimes one where the viewer doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s as if she tells us a joke, but the joke is a bit too close to home, so that it makes us wince as we recognise something of ourselves in the punchline.” (Boothroyd, 2016)
Seven Years (2001-4):
In ‘Seven Years’, Morrissey, in collaboration with her older sister, presents a series of ambiguous, constructed family snapshots staged in the 1970s and 80s. In an interview with Sharon Boothroyd, Morrissey explains that ‘Seven Years’ is only a personal project in the sense that she worked with her sister to make it:
“The pictures themselves are not related to my own personal pictures, but rather they are about generic family album photographs. They are moments when we all take pictures, i.e. the celebration, the new baby, the pet, the day out, the beach, the picnic. But they all have a dark twist. Humour is probably the first emotion encountered by the viewer, but I think that soon fades to a slow burning psychological affect. Secrets. The project is all about secrets.” (Boothroyd, 2016)
From ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ by Charlotte Cotton:
“Seven Years provides a link between Morrissey’s own family experiences, remembered through personal photographs, and the common tropes of domestic photography. Family snaps can be triggered for re-remembering and reappraising identities and familial relationships. In collaboration with her elder sister, who is the other performer in the series, Morrissey attempted to make the subject of Seven Years the subtexts of relationships that are embedded in family photographs. The props and clothing of objects found in Morrissey’s parents’ attic and secondhand items she collected for the staging of each photograph.” (Cotton, 2014 :196)
Alison Green observes that although the scenarios Morrissey shows in ‘Seven Years’ are only partially based on her personal, family history, they still have “the haunting (or stultifying) quality of one’s own memories of privately painful experiences of ordinary events.” (Green, 2006)
Camilla Brown believes Morrissey’s choice to stage ‘Seven Years’ in and around her family home rather than in a studio provides a crucial authenticity to the images which seek “to deconstruct family photographs by using various devices to render the familiar uncanny.”:
“Rarely do the sisters play themselves, but instead they appear in different guises and settings, across a decade. The gender of the characters changes as the young girl on the beach becomes a man with short hair and a moustache sat with his legs apart on a sofa. The androgyny of the characters is used to prevent the usual mimetic representation of family portraits that rely upon identifiable roles and positions. We cannot be sure who is the father, mother, daughter or brother. In this way despite the thread of autobiographical reference woven through the series there is a continual blurring of fact and fiction. It becomes clear that this series is less about one particular family but more an examination of the generic nature of family portraits and how they are interpreted.” (Brown, 2004)
Edward Welch discusses how Morrissey’s intricate reconstructions demonstrate not only the way the family album serves as an archive for the fashions and tastes of a period, but also, how it becomes a repository for family memory and history. Conventional signs of vernacular snapshot photography are recreated in a playful way, such as fingers in front of the lens. It is the way that feelings and emotions are betrayed by body language that is particularly fascinating howver:
“Our attention is drawn constantly in these photos to gestures and poses, and in particular to facial expressions, gazes and glances – whether it be the ones they address to the camera or to each other. We are invited to imagine narratives to which they point…Morrissey succeeds in making us reflect on how families are constructed, and how they present themselves for consumption.” (Welch, s.d.)
In an article for Lens Culture, Morrissey laments how the physical, family photo album has been replaced by digital images which are now shared electronically and rarely printed:
“In the past, looking through albums required a ritualized oral dialogue of storytelling, descriptions, memory-making, nostalgia and celebration – as well as denial, absences and secrecy. Family snapshots follow cultural conventions. Much of this is in flux as a result of digital intervention.
The family album presents an idealized version of family life that often belies the truth. Everyone has a special face they were for the camera. When we pause and pose for a snap, we usually smile – but the unconscious leaks out into the body, bypassing the face, which stands firm behind its mask. The instantaneous nature of photography isolates the small gestures that often go unnoticed in real life because they are too minute and commonplace to be discerned.
The photographs in “Seven Years” are the awkward pictures: fingers in front of lens, eyes shut, unattractive body language. Pictures that would normally ended up down the back of the sofa, or burned so that they would never see the light of day.” (Morrissey, s.d.)
‘Front’ is a series of 12 images showing different groups of people and shot on beaches in the UK during the summer. The work explores conventions of the family photograph with Morrissey taking the place of one of the women in the group and with the woman then replacing Morrissey as the artist/photographer. Camilla Brown observes that the participants become collaborators with Morrissey in making the final work: “As complicit participants the authorship of the work becomes shared.” Morrissey’s fascination with the family unit is the driving force and inherent tension in the series:
“We assume the groups are families and it is only when we see Morrissey in each shot that this presumption starts to unravel. Although these people are strangers to us, all of us will have similar photographs of our own families that are like this. The work touches on how family photographs operate in the vernacular context, and how they are also used to propagate the hegemony and stability of the nuclear family unit.” (Brown, 2010)
Alison Green sees ‘Front’ as a development in the themes of “doubling and displacement” that are concerns of Morrissey’s earlier work. In this series, she “courts the awkwardness, unhappiness or anguish displayed on the body in spite of the smile fixed for a conventional ‘happy image.”:
“[In] ‘Front’ Morrissey doesn’t merely sit for the picture, but takes on the persona-mother, sister, friend-of one of the group’s members, who herself becomes the photographer. These photographs become at once ordinary holiday snaps and very strange exchanges between public and private spaces (she usually tried to borrow an item of clothing from the woman she replaced). In a sense, Morrissey’s motivations are dual: she wants to bring photographic clichés into high relief, but also to open these dramas up, to create more play within them to counter the ossifying effects both of memory and group dynamics.” (Green, 2006)
Dan rule makes these observations:
“The series is almost disquieting in its believability. What makes Morrissey’s work impressive and convincing is its multiplicity. She doesn’t just comment on family and femininity and photographic mode; she steps inside and embodies the formal and cultural archetypes. These are as much family portraits with Morrissey, a stranger in them as they would be otherwise.” (Rule, 2010)
Marcus Bunyan states:
“These photographs subvert the idiom of the nuclear family, where conversational parties possess common cultural references. In Morrissey’s photographs the family photograph has become a site of resistance, a contested site, one that challenges the holistic whole of the family, the memory of the family photograph and the idea that without family nothing cohesive would exist at all.” (Bunyan, 2010)
The Failed Realist (2011):
This series was made in collaboration with her daughter when she was between four and five and came about through the rainy day activity of face painting. The title refers to psychologist George-Henri Luquet’s concept of child development which he termed The Failed Realist stage which refers to the desire of the child to represent their experiences visually which is hampered by their undeveloped motor skills. Morrissey also references the Romantic artists who strove for a return to innocence in their own painting and later modernist painters who saw the drawings of children as a pure way of seeing.
Siún Hanrahan makes these observations of the work:
“The painted faces recorded in the photographs are, thus, traces of a vivid fanciful play of imagination making sense of life’s narratives – real, fictional and imagined. Emerging through play, what was being depicted was entirely present in the moment it was being told and painted. That the abstract markings are not (for the child) deliberate, if clumsy, variations on the masks of Pierrot or Harlequin is suggested by the title of the series. As failed realists, children intend their drawings to represent something from life without yet being able to control the depiction nor yet having fully thought through the relationships between parts.
So far the suggestion is that what is met through the photographs has to do with childhood. And yet, we do not meet the child and this is not quite an encounter with her world. The photograph is of the mother. We are removed from the moment and the scenography of play. Disparate events are rendered temporally equivalent, in that incidental markers of the particular day have been removed – no clothing is evident, hairstyle is largely unchanging, and the backdrop is constant. The expression is neutral, as far as possible, and ‘confrontational’ as it expects to meet our gaze.
The photographs record ambivalence toward the iconic moments of childhood. But, removed as they are from the scene of play, the ambivalence is not necessarily toward the construction of childhood. The works do not particularly propose themselves as portraits of motherhood, and yet, it is the mother in the photograph.
The works call up the body but refuse access to the specific, embodied experience and sense-making of mother or child. They both acknowledge and resist the child’s authority – in wrestling agency within the face painting game and in the meanings to be made.” (Hanrahan, 2012)
‘The Successful Realist‘ is a reprise of this project made six years later when Morrissey’s daughter was 11. The work follows the same rules as the earlier series and while the painting is much more refined, much can be inferred from her daughter’s development as a young person on the verge of becoming a teenager.
Ten People in a Suitcase (2015):
This series was the result of a residency Morrissey was invited to participate in along with eight other artists at Gosta Serlachius Fine Art Foundation in Mantta, Finland. The brief was for each artist to make work about the town to be shown in a group exhibition with the aim of finding a way of getting to the essence of the place. Morrissey used the town archive of over 30,000 pictures as the basis of her work, picking ten images of that resonated with her in some way and re-imaging these with herself as the protagonist. Most of the images were anonymous and showed people engaged in everyday activities and Morrissey used them as guides, selecting the images to use based on instinct and because she felt some sort of visceral connection to them. From her artists statement she explains: “The photographs transcend mere re-enactments, they are embodiments of real individuals who are more than just their snap shot.”
- Trish Morrissey Website
- Trish Morrissey – A Certain Slant of Light (Interview)
- Trish Morrissey – Lens Culture Website
Boothroyd, S. (2016) Trish Morrissey. Photoparley blog. Available at: https://photoparley.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/trish-morrissey/ (accessed 30th January 2020)
Brown, C. (2004) Trish Morrissey, Seven Years. EAST International 2004, Catalogue Essay. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/east-2004.html (accessed 28th January 2020)
Brown, C, (2010) Trish Morrissey. Portfolio, Issue No. 49. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/portfolio-2010.html (accessed 18th January 2020)
Bunyan, M. (2010) Review: Trish Morrissey, photographs and video at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne. ArtBlart Blog, 2nd March 2010. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/reviews/review-artblart.html (accessed 30th January 2020)
Cotton, C. (2004) Seven Years part 1. Photoworks Issue 1. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/seven-years-part-1/ (accessed 30th January 2020)
Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson
Green, A. (2006) Vitamin Ph, Survey of International Contemporary Photography. Phaidon Press. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/vit-ph-2006.html (accessed 28th January 2020)
Hanrahan, S. (2012) The failed realist. Source Magazine. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/source-2012.html (accessed 28th January 2020)
Morrissey, T. (s.d.) Seven Years. Lens Culture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/trish-morrissey-seven-years (accessed 30th January 2020)
Phillips, S. (2013) Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach. The Guardian, 23rd January 2013. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot (accessed 30th January 2020)
Welch, E. (s.d.) Family Remade. Source Magazine issue 40. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/reviews/review-source-is40.html (accessed 30th January 2020)