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“To Prove that I Exist”: Melissa Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, 1972-1973
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“To Prove that I Exist”: Melissa Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, 1972–1973

In December of 1972, photographer Melissa Shook (1939–2020) assigned herself a personal, artistic challenge: to take self-portraits every day for a year, in her own words, “to prove that I exist.” Struggling with self-identity and unreliable childhood memories, Shook undertook this conceptual exercise to see if she could remember to take pictures every day. The days she failed to photograph herself became just as important as the days she succeeded, resulting in a singular body that powerfully conveys Shook’s relationship with memory, family, her body, and her sense of self. As both photographer and subject, Shook explored the dynamics of durational self-portraiture on both sides of her camera’s lens. The collective portrait that emerges conveys the vibrancy of Shook’s creative imagination, as she explores the intersecting facets of her identity as a woman, a mother, and an artist.

Though rooted in personal intention, Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits resonate with currents in feminist artistic practice of the late 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, artists such as Eleanor Antin, Hannah Wilke, and Ana Mendieta used self-portraiture to challenge culturally oppressive expectations for women’s bodies. Shook also made her Daily Self-Portraits before artists such as Cindy Sherman and Francesa Woodman began photographing themselves in the mid-1970s.  Putting herself, nude and clothed, at the center of her project, Shook used photography as a multi-faceted tool for observation, documentation, performance and formal experimentation. Her Daily Self-Portraits stand at the forefront of the conceptual ideas that fueled feminist artists during this formative period.

In our current age of social media “selfies,” and women’s continued struggle for bodily autonomy, Shook’s self-portraits are especially relevant and poised to resonate with a new generation. The Nelson-Atkins is the only museum to own a set of Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, and this exhibition marks the first time this group of over 200 photographs will be shown together.

“To Prove that I Exist”: Melissa Shook’s Daily Self-Portraits, 1972-1973 will be accompanied by a selection of self-portraits in gallery L10, spanning the 19th21st centuries, which will include works by Laura Aguilar, Ilse Bing, Claude Cahun, Tseng Kwon Chi, John Coplans, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Lee Friedlander, Graciela Iturbide, Mike Mandel, Arno Minkkinen, Anne Noggle, ringl + pit, Tomoko Sawada, Cindy Sherman, Annie Hsiao-Ching Wang, and Francesca Woodman, among many others.   

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



Image captions:
Top right: Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020).  December 13, 1972. Gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 × 4 1/4 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.55.
Bottom right:  Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 16, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 3/8 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2015.20.141.
Featured image: Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 18, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 3/8 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of Hallmark Cards, Inc., 2015.20.145.
Slideshow: (In order of appearance)
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). February 21, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 3/8 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.121.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 18, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 7/16 × 4 7/16 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.145.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 19, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 1/2 × 4 3/8 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.147.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 29, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 5/16 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.163.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 20, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 1/4 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.148.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 26, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 1/4 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.158.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). March 18, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 3/8 × 4 3/8 inches.  The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.146.
Melissa Shook, American (1939-2020). April 1, 1973, 1973. Gelatin Silver print, 4 7/16 × 4 3/8 inches. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Gift of the Hall Family Foundation, 2015.20.166.