Photo by Christi Bradnox
Nikki Lee is a lot of people
. She’s an 85-year-old woman. She’s trailer trash in Ohio. She’s a pretty good skateboarder. She’s a stripper. She’s a fag hag. She’s a punk. She’s a Japanese tourist. She’s a yuppie, a lesbian, a Japanese trust fund kid in New York. She’s a Hispanic girl, a hip hop fan, and an Asian schoolgirl.
Lee has taken the Cindy Sherman idea of assuming an identity and taking pictures of it and taken it way farther. Instead of simply dressing like a subculture and having a few shots done that day, she literally becomes a new person. The Skateboard Project, for example, involved weeks of Lee practicing tricks in order to make her infiltration into the scene more plausible. For her Hip Hop Project, Lee got a dark tan, thugged-out r&b outfits, and, before long, was hanging out with Mobb Deep’s Prodigy.
It’s not just performance art and it’s not just photography.
The inevitable question is how much do these people believe it? (Her face for the Seniors Project included flawless makeup - sagging jowls and crow’s feet that were unmistakably real.) Do the players in her stories feel betrayed when they find out they’ve been had? “There’s nothing like that,” she says at her recent opening in New York that featured her latest, the Exotic Dancer Project. “I tell them that I’m an artist just doing an experiment.” This contradicts all our research and it contradicts the sincerity of the photographs. It’s hard to find out the true story because she does very few interviews (she refused this magazine because, as her agent put it, “it just seems to be girl’s squirting and skateboarders”).
“She’s just saying that,” says a prominent local photographer who was also at her show. “She refuses to explain to anyone how involved the process is because it wrecks the pictures. You aren’t supposed to worry about that. Just enjoy them and the whole idea of identity and environment. These pictures are more real than you think. So real you start to question everything around you. For all you know I’m a 31- year-old Korean girl in disguise right now.”
See all Nikki S Lee’s different projects at