Lorie Novak

Teaching Page

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Lorie Novak, Self Portrait (Ellis Island), 1988, Cibachrome print, 22 ½ x 18 ½ inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Gift of Karen Novak and Daniel Dickson.

This teaching page provides analysis of the work of art, background information on the artist, key ideas, discussion questions, and online resources for additional learning. You can also download a PDF of this teaching page and a large image of Self Portrait (Ellis Island). This work is on view in Reconfigured Reality: Contemporary Photography from the Permanent Collection on view through November 12, 2017.

THE ART

This ghostly photograph by Lorie Novak is named Self Portrait (Ellis Island), an unusual juxtaposition of words for a title. The title suggests that the face in the center is that of the artist herself; however, it also implies that the picture is something of a self-portrait of the famous port of entry for immigrants coming to America. Ellis Island is a small island in New York Harbor, close to New York City and near the Statue of Liberty. Between 1892 and 1954 over twelve million immigrants entered the United States through the processing center on this island gateway to their new homeland. Nearly half of all American citizens can trace their ancestry to one of these immigrants. Self Portrait (Ellis Island) depicts a hallway in the old building, as well as one descendant of the multitudes who came to America through this entrance.

In this picture we can see the artist’s face topped by curly hair, her eyes looking at us from a wall of the room, her pink lips intersecting the frame around an open doorway. Half of her face, as well as another fainter image of her face, appears to float in the space of the doorway. Streaks of color draw attention to the hues and textures of her clothing. The old, cracked door stands ajar, seemingly transparent because we can see the walls in the corner of the room right through it. Two or three other doors can be discerned in the image (a closed one on the left and others beyond the doorway). The shadowed walls are covered with peeling dark paint over a white under-layer. The floor is littered with dirt and sand. Leaves and rubble lie in the corners and along the base of the walls.

Self Portrait (Ellis Island) is constructed from the traditional visual elements of art—lines, shapes, colors, textures, space, and light. Brownish-red parallel lines emerge from the foreground of the picture and appear to converge beyond the doorway and in the door at left. Geometric shapes of squares, triangles, and rectangles layer and divide the space, complicating our perspective of the three-dimensional room. Light enters through the opened door. Textures seem to transcend the photograph’s surface, the artist’s curly hair looking almost leafy in relation to the bark-like textures of the peeling paint. Red, white, and blue colors of walls, paint, and clothing call forth associations with the historical meaning of the place. Vacant space seems filled with human presence and emotion.  

Lorie Novak used a slide projector to cast an image of her face into an empty hall at Ellis Island. She did this in 1988, during a period when Ellis Island was undergoing a major restoration, before it was reopened to the public in 1990. She and other photographers were given permission to photograph places on the island during the renovation as long as they wore hard hats. They rode to the island in boats used during the construction process. Novak chose an old hallway that was not scheduled to be renovated, because the peeling paint on the walls seemed to be good evidence of time passing. With her camera set on a tripod, she projected the slide image of herself onto the wall with the door closed. Then she opened the door and took another shot without advancing the film, creating a “double exposure” that contains the same photograph of herself projected onto the far wall.

Novak has said, “When you walk into a room, when you go to any new place, you bring with you all sorts of visual images that you have in your memory…The relationship between memory and photographs has always interested me—photographs as substitutes for memory and as ‘evidence’ of a past. I think the emotional impact of my photographs is dependent on the fact that photographs do trigger associations with the past.” Novak was particularly interested in photographing Ellis Island because her grandparents had immigrated through this entry to America from Poland and Russia. However, when she was a child they had chosen not to talk very much about their experiences of the past; they felt it was more important to focus their attention on becoming American. By the time Novak was grown and knew the kinds of questions she wanted to ask them, they were no longer alive. She was aware that many other people have similar experiences of longing for information about their history and identity. She chose to represent this search by exploring how photographs could be used in a symbolic and metaphoric way. By projecting her self-portrait into this historical place and using double exposure, she created a layering effect that is not unlike the layering of personal history. As she has said, “I combine and re-visualize photographic imagery, exploring its relationship with memory. I am particularly interested in how personal and collective memory affect the reading of photographs.”

THE ARTIST

Lorie Novak was born in a suburb of Los Angeles, California, in 1954. Her father took many photographs of her and her family enjoying activities together during her childhood, and she uses these photographs in her art. She thinks that family photographs shape what we remember, and that we often save certain ones we think are most flattering. She likes to use the ones that are left over and not put into albums because they are often more interesting. She uses them as slides that she projects into rooms or in the out-of-doors to create “installations,” artworks that are created for specific environments or spaces. She has said, “I feel that by projecting slides into any situation, I am raising questions as to what is real. In photographing a projected installation, I am, in a sense, documenting something that is but isn’t there. I turn off the power and the subject no longer exists, but I have a photograph that shows that it once did.”

In 1996 Novak developed Collected Visions, a participatory website that examines the relationship between family photographs and memory. Approximately 3,000 images collected from over 300 people are stored in a searchable archive of family snapshots that also includes more than 250 photo essays exploring how photographs shape recollections. Novak said, “What I see in these photographs are the dreams, disappointments, joys, tensions, stereotypes, and myths of modern culture.” Visitors to the website can contribute stories and photographs or create essays inspired by images in the archive.

Lorie Novak earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University and a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She resides in Brooklyn, New York, and is an artist and professor at New York University Tisch School of Arts.

KEY IDEAS

  • layering of photographic imagery using slides projected into a distinct space
  • photography’s role in the shaping of memory and identity within family life
  • personal memory and history as part of collective, or societal, memory and history

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What are some qualities you notice about the place in this photograph? How would you describe its form? its contents? its condition? Is anyone present in this space?
  2. This hallway on Ellis Island used to be part of a very busy processing center for immigrants entering the United States. What do you notice about how the artist constructed the image so it conveys information that the place was an entry point and gateway to a new life?
  3. The artist Lorie Novak is interested in the layers of memories we carry inside ourselves that combine to build up our own histories and sense of who we are. What do you notice about the photograph that implies this process of building up memories?
  4. Lorie Novak has said she makes photographs that will cause the viewer to question what is real and what is unreal. How has she accomplished this in Self Portrait (Ellis Island)?
  5. What are some things you would like to know about your ancestors’ lives and motivations?
  6. What are some things you know about people who have been immigrating to the United States during your own lifetime? What are some questions you would like to ask them about their memories and their choices?

RESOURCES

On the Artist:
Lorie Novak's website

Barnard Center for Research on Women description of Lorie Novak's Virtual Family Album

Context:
The Liberty Ellis Foundation History of Ellis Island