This essay was produced in conjunction with the exhibition Nancy Floyd: Weathering Time, on view at CUE Art Foundation, September 7–October 21, 2017. This text is included in the free exhibition catalogue available at CUE.
When Nancy Floyd started the photographic series Weathering Time in 1982, no one could have conceived how smartphones would change our lives. Today, taking selfies has become a daily habit for many. But as recently as 1982, people were still using Polaroid cameras for instant photographs or buying film and developing their pictures at Fotomat. It wasn’t typical of people to document their every move with photographs. But after Floyd received her bachelor’s degree in fine arts photography, she developed the idea of photographing herself every day to document the aging of her body over time. When she started, she photographed herself each morning before heading to her waitressing job so she wouldn’t fail to do it after a long day at work. In the 35 years since, she’s gone from waiting tables to retiring from a career as a professor of photography; she plans to take photographs of herself until her last day.
If you are a Baby Boomer, you’ll recognize the clothing fashionable in Floyd’s youth. You’ll reminisce about the technology of the early 80s. You’ll likely know what it means to lose a parent or both. Boomers value the hard work it takes to get as far as Nancy Floyd has in her life. While Millennials are used to having knowledge at the tip of their fingers, Floyd was only afforded a college education because she was the youngest of six children, the rest of whom had left home by the time she was ready to go to school. And as many Millennials race to be famous and rich as soon as possible, they can view this exhibition as the timeline of a healthy life. While there have been several studies conducted to understand the differences between Boomers and Millennials, and it’s been found that they may not have the same values, viewing Weathering Time bridges generations. Change is inevitable for everyone.
It may have been her father’s interest in taking pictures of the family that inspired Floyd to begin photographing herself. Her reward system was approval from her dad, not anonymous associates on social media. It would be easy to overlook the family portrait by Floyd’s father included among her own images. Her consistent use of black-and-white photography provides a seamless transition between photographs of the past and more current ones. Although Floyd as the subject is a constant, and she repeats compositions, the objects and people accompanying her vary. Attempting to gain the greatest depth in each photograph, the subjects are captured fully, from head to toe. Unlike the photographs by selfie enthusiasts who use apps to remove blemishes or to make themselves appear taller and thinner before posting to social media, Floyd presents her portraits unfiltered. Bravely, she hasn’t succumbed to body ideals and in her boldness really defies them. Although in a few of the photographs she appears right out of bed, wearing a T-shirt and underwear, or hiding behind a pillow, she does not sexualize herself. Throughout the years, Floyd doesn’t wear make-up, keeps her hair short, and doesn’t show off her curves.
Unlike the famous conceptual portraitist Cindy Sherman, who produces “selfies” on a grand scale, Floyd doesn’t aim to create elaborate spectacles through staging scenes or creating characters. She may revisit a pose, a person, or a location. She may wear the same clothes. But Floyd does not transform her identity with make-up, hair, and costumes. Instead she simply shows by example how authenticity can direct a successful life. Grouping photographs with similar poses offers viewers the chance to discern those things that are modified by time like machinery, modes of transportation, or equipment, implicitly identifying the advancement of the artist’s experiences by these ephemera. As a self-portraitist, Floyd is less interested in making herself look iconic, as Sherman does, than in exhibiting the type of evolution that is common among most lives.
Although Floyd herself is the main subject in Weathering Time, she also provides time-lapse portraits of her family as they age and have children of their own. This is akin to the work of Nicholas Nixon, who has photographed his wife and her three sisters every year since 1975 in the series, The Brown Sisters. Through the series, we watch Nixon’s wife and her sisters age and connect more lovingly with one another in the process. Floyd’s photographs capture her parents from the early 1980s until their deaths; she includes images of her embracing them while they are well and as they fall ill. Their deaths had a dramatic effect on Floyd’s practice. During the months her parents died, she took few pictures, and she includes the contact sheets representing those months’ photographs to illustrate the many days she did not take photographs. Consequently, the theme of this body of work transcends the idea of simply aging to incorporate the inevitability of mortality. We will all be gone one day, but we will leave behind our pictures, our experiences with others, and even our social media feeds as our legacies, signaling the value of the image and the impermanence of being.
Just as Floyd doesn’t stay in the same position throughout her life, neither does anyone else who attempts to improve their life. Comparable to the well-known Up series by Michael Apted, which documented the lives of fourteen British people of various social classes every seven years from 1964 until 2013, Floyd’s Weathering Time shows her change in social status. While some of the changes that occurred to the subjects of the documentary series were unforeseen, so too were developments in Floyd’s life. She might have been content waiting tables while continuing to create art, but life had different plans. As evidenced from the photographs, Floyd moved across the country multiple times to seek greater opportunities. And while her modes of transportation became more advanced, so too did her status in life.
In addition to showing us changes of the body, and in technology, she even documents changes in her ideas. As a young woman, she photographed herself with rhetoric about animal abuse on a t-shirt and at her current age she dons a t-shirt with the slogan “black lives matter.” And we can only guess that the artist’s understanding of the world has evolved as well.
In their simplicity, the moments she captures are easily relatable: arms around close family members with smiles for the camera and children sitting in laps. Instead of capturing the phenomenal, she captures the ordinary and has made it note-worthy by placing images adjacent to one another, demonstrating meaning that supersedes her personal existence and touching the viewer by sympathetic understanding. Floyd believes, “the beauty of portraiture is the ability to stare as long as you want.” Her viewers are welcome to engage for extended periods of time. And many find her accessible enough to engage in conversations about their own photographs and lives when they meet.
Floyd’s work predates the selfies of today while still providing an entry point of understanding for a generation of people who don’t typically understand her generation. And that’s what’s golden about the work. So many things have changed in the time since she started this project that it speaks to every generation with a narrative demonstrating the impermanence of time. This timeline allows for looking intensely at the change that can happen over a lifetime or in just a few years. While the narrative that Floyd creates in this photographic series may encourage our acceptance of change, she states that, “For real change to happen, you have to be active.” Creating this exhibition might be the action that Floyd contributes to instituting a realization that everything takes time—even change.
This essay was written as part of the Art Critic Mentoring Program, a partnership between AICA-USA (US section of International Association of Art Critics) and CUE, which pairs emerging writers with AICA-USA mentors to produce original essays on a specific exhibiting artist. Please visit aicausa.org for more information on AICA-USA, or cueartfoundation.org to learn how to participate in this program. Any quotes are from interviews with the author unless otherwise specified. No part of this essay may be reproduced without prior consent from the author. Lilly Wei is AICA’s Coordinator for the program this season.
Shantay Robinson, an Atlanta-based art writer, has been featured in Arts ATL, Burnaway, Number, Inc., AFROPUNK, and ARTS.BLACK. Her scholarly work includes the presentation of papers at Savannah College of Art and Design’s (SCAD) Symposium on Art and Fashion: From Peplos to Petticoat to Punk; and at Georgia State University’s New Voices Conference. Robinson participated in Burnaway’s inaugural Art Writers Mentorship Program and in an editorial fellowship through Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies. She also produces videos that have screened at art galleries, museums, and universities. Robinson earned a bachelor’s degree in Media Management from Syracuse University; an MFA in Writing from SCAD; and a master’s in Communication and Composition from Minnesota State University. She teaches Rhetoric and Composition at Clayton State University.
Mentor Nancy Princenthal is a New York-based critic and former Senior Editor of Art in America; other publications to which she has contributed include Artforum, Parkett, the Village Voice, and the New York Times. Her book Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art (Thames and Hudson) was published in June 2015. She is also the author of Hannah Wilke (Prestel, 2010), and her essays have appeared in monographs on Shirin Neshat, Doris Salcedo, Robert Mangold and Alfredo Jaar, among many others. She is a co-author of two recent books on leading women artists, including The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium (Prestel, fall 2013). Having taught at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Princeton University; Yale University, RISD, Montclair State University and elsewhere, she is currently on the faculty of the School of Visual Arts.