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Visible Stars, 2022, By Lorna Simpson Honfrps. Photograph By James Wang

Lorna Simpson HonFRPS and the ballad of John Coltrane

The acclaimed US image-maker considers the relationship between artist and audience

‘Visible Stars’, 2022, unframed, by Lorna Simpson HonFRPS. Photograph by James Wang

Nine pairs of lips form a monochrome grid on the screen. Slowly, they start to hum 'It's so easy to remember (and so hard to forget)', a Rogers and Hart song covered by jazz saxophonist John Coltrane on his seminal 1962 album, Ballads. The effect is haunting, mournful. But that wasn’t necessarily what Lorna Simpson HonFRPS had in mind when she made her moving image piece It’s Easy to Remember, 2001.  

“They’re humming along to him playing it so it’s different in tempo, melody and pitch than the original,” she explains. “And it’s difficult, really difficult, to hum his music this way.”  

Acclaimed for her work across four decades, Simpson remembered the tune fondly from her childhood in 1960s and 1970s New York. “It gives me joy and a deep connection to my past,” says the image-maker who has received an RPS Honorary Fellowship.

‘Easy to remember, 2001’ by Lorna Simpson HonFRPS

It happened that Simpson first exhibited the work just a few weeks after the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. Naturally, the mood in her home city was sombre and that informed how it was received at the time.

Whether making moving images, photographic collage, drawing, painting or sculptural installation, Simpson sets out to provoke questions rather than elicit a given reaction. And she has been provoking questions around gender, the body, race and identity since the 1980s when she pioneered a conceptual approach to image-making.  

“I play with the legibility of the way one can read and discern information,” she says. In some works, words appear ambiguously juxtaposed with images, open to multiple interpretations. In others they are fragments of phrases, transposed almost at random. “There’s an intimacy in making the work. I give myself permission to explore. And then it’s interesting to see reactions.”  


Read more about the work of Lorna Simpson HonFRPS in a special issue of the RPS Journal celebrating the Royal Photographic Society Awards 2023 

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