Nikki S. Lee

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Nikki S. Lee
KoreAm March 2007 cover.jpg
On the March 2007 cover of KoreAm
Born1970 (age 48–49)
Known forPhotography
AwardsThe Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Award
Korean name
Revised RomanizationYi Seunghui
McCune–ReischauerYi Sǔnghui

Nikki Seung-hee Lee (born 1970) is a visual artist based in Kye-Chang, South Korea, now living and working in New York City. Her works surround the fields of photography and film. Her work is informed by 'Asian notions of identity, where identity is not a static set of traits belonging to an individual, but something constantly changing and defined through relationships with other people.' [2]

Early life[edit]

Nikki S. Lee was raised in Kye-Chang, a very small town in Korea. At a young age, she had a desire to make something unique. Growing up, she was exposed to a variety of foreign cultures through media and she developed interests in learning other cultures and empathizing with other people. However, she did not want to become an artist because in Korea at that time, the position of women artists was nearly non-existent and not welcomed. When she attended university, she wanted to become and actress and study film. Her dream of becoming an actress did not last for a long time because she thought that she was 'not pretty enough' to be an actress in Korea. Hence, she changed her dream to becoming a filmmaker. When she announced her dream to her parents, they refused to send her to film school. Instead of attending a film school, she went to a photography school and became a photographer.[3]


Lee earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in photography at Chung-Ang University in South Korea in 1993. After a year, she moved to New York City to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology to study commercial photography. Then she earned her Master of Arts in photography at New York University (NYU) in 1998.[4] At NYU, she found her interest in the conceptual aspect of photography. Until her study in New York University, she mainly worked on documentary projects, which made her to go out to the streets and take photographs; she disliked this aspect of documentary because she did not like 'bothering people.'[3]

Her time at NYU was an influential force that encouraged her to become re-engaged with art and the art world. While at NYU, she encountered a friend who took her to art galleries and introduced her a wide range of books. Like this, the personal relationships she formed at school led her to later pursue her career as an artist.[3]


In Lee's early career, she started as a photo assistant for the LaChapelle Studio. As an intern, she carried lighting, helped setting up the studio, and loaded film. Although she enjoyed working for commercial photography, she suddenly wanted to 'make something on her own,' which propelled her to enter her new career as a photographer.[3]

Projects, 1997–2001[edit]

Lee's most noted work, Projects (1997–2001), begun while still in school a s a graduation requirement, depicts her in snapshot photographs in which she poses with drag queens, punks, swing dancers, senior citizens, Latinos, hip-hop musicians and fans, skateboarders, lesbians, young urban professionals, and Korean schoolgirls. She immerses herself into each American subculture and created an identity that is an extension of herself. With a simple point-and-shoot camera, she asked the selected group or passerby to record her.[5] Lee conceives of her work as less about creating beautiful pictures, and more about investigating notions of identity and the uses of vernacular photography.[6] Lee would select a subculture, research it, and adopt the clothing, customs, and mannerisms of the group. Then, Lee would tell a group of members of the subculture about Projects and ask if she could “hang out” with them. After three or more months, Lee would ask either a friend, a member of the group, or a stranger to take a picture of her with the group.[7]

While Lee's projects appear quite dissimilar from each other, there is a common thread among all of the subcultures she portrayed. Many individuals she portrayed belong to unique groups clustered around lower Manhattan, the area where the artist makes her home. Also, each group has a distinctive dress code that functions both as a boundary and a connection between the members of their community. Her projects highlights Lee's underlying concept of how other people make her a certain kind of person and the influence of inner relationships on the idea of identity.[8] Lee continues to question the concepts of identity and social behavior; she believes that 'essentially life itself is a performance. When we change our clothes to alter our appearance, the real act is the transformation of our way of expression- the outward expression of our psyche.' [2] The artist claims that when she shows her work, she prefers presenting a number of photographs together, since they are all connected. For instance, 'The Punk Project has to be with The Yuppie Project, The Lesbian Project and other projects. That are what makes The Punk Project really look punk. The projects support and define one another. I don't necessarily see a sequence in my own work, and my images don't have an order, but people can make up their own story when they see my work.' [3]

With Projects, a series of photos that brought her to fame after exhibiting at art exhibitions and fairs in 1998, Lee transformed herself into a "mix" of clothing, makeup and makeup. hairstyles, dyeing salon, multicolor contact lenses, dance exercises ..., to penetrate completely different environments: tourists, girls, retirees, etc ... and posed poses with their new acquaintances.[9]

It is argued that The Yuppie Project (1998) is the most significant of Lee’s series. Lee immersed herself in the world of young Wall Street professionals and the resulting photographs emphasize whiteness as a race. The Yuppie Project highlights how white people rarely acknowledge their own race by documenting wealthy white men in a business setting. Whiteness is represented in two key ways, one being the affluence of these young business men. The other is the exclusivity and alienation. Though the subjects of this project are not overtly bigoted, Lee could not fully integrate into the group. Unlike other projects of the series in which Lee is almost indistinguishable from her new clique, Lee stands out in the photographs of the The Yuppy Project. [10]


A more recent series by Lee, entitled Parts (2002–2005) uses images of Lee posing in different settings with a male partner, cropped to make it impossible to directly see who she is with,[11][12] leaving only a trace, such as an arm or a foot. This picture sets the focus completely on Lee, which suggests that her identity also changes after each emotional relationship. Lee said "When I first met, everyone said, 'Oh, you are different from what I think.'

In her most recent project, an hour-long film, Lee takes full advantage of that embarrassment. In 2006 Lee released the film, A.K.A. Nikki S. Lee. The project, described as a "conceptual documentary," alternates segments presenting Lee as two distinct personalities, a reserved academic and an outgoing socialite. It had its premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, October 5–7, 2006.[13] The film appears to be a true Nikki documentary, a young woman who is serious about making a second documentary about herself. Nikki No. 2, an impulsive personality, flaunts in the photo. But as Lee explained in an interview: "Nikki number one should be Nikki, and Nikki number two should be fake. But both are Nikki fake."[14] Through this work, she aims to point out the interesting concept of showing reality and non-reality at the same time.

Lee’s only work for a commercial magazine was with Black Book. Lee collaborated with the magazine on the theme Bourgeois and took photos of herself and a man as a bourgeois couple.[15]

One of her most recent works is Layers (2008), which is a series of photographs that show layers of her street portraits drawn in 14 different cities. Lee would collect the street portraits of her, layer three different portraits on a light box, and take photo of them. Through this project, she wanted to find out how people from different cities would portray her face; she acknowledges that everyone has many layers of personalities, and she wanted to portray this in her work.[16]


  1. ^ Yi Nam-hui (July 2011), "뉴욕이 주목한 아티스트 니키 리 [Noted New York artist Nikki Lee]", The Dong-A Ilbo (622), pp. 310–315, retrieved 2011-09-29
  2. ^ a b "Museum of Contemporary Photography". Retrieved 2019-04-26.
  3. ^ a b c d e Lee, Nikki S., 1970- (2001). Projects. Ferguson, Russell,, Vicario, Gilbert,, Martin, Lesley A. Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany. ISBN 978-3775710916. OCLC 48209778.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Allison, Amanda (January 2009). "Identity in Flux: Exploring the Work of Nikki S. Lee". Art Education. 62 (1): 25–30. doi:10.1080/00043125.2009.11519001. ISSN 0004-3125.
  5. ^ "Nikki S. Lee". National Museum of Women in the Arts. Retrieved 23 April 2014.
  6. ^ Smith, Cherise (2011). Enacting Others : Politics of Identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 205.
  7. ^ Allison, Amanda. "Identity in Flux: Exploring the Work of Nikki S. Lee." Art Education 61, no. 1 (January 2009): 25-31.
  8. ^ Smith, Cherise, 1969- (2011). Enacting others : politics of identity in Eleanor Antin, Nikki S. Lee, Adrian Piper, and Anna Deavere Smith. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822393085. OCLC 717324506.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  9. ^ "Nikki S. Lee's "Projects"—And the Ongoing Circulation of Blackface, Brownface in "Art"". Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  10. ^ Berger, Maurice. "Picturing Whiteness: Nikki S. Lee's Yuppie Project." Art Journal 60, no. 4 (May 7, 2014): 54-57.
  11. ^ Miller, J. Macneill (September 2007), "The Impersonal Album: Chronicling Life in the Digital Age.", Afterimage, 35 (2): 9–12
  12. ^ "Fluid Identities: The "Parts" and "Projects" of Nikki Lee". Broad Strokes: The National Museum of Women in the Arts' Blog. 1 November 2013. Retrieved 2018-05-11.
  13. ^ Lee, Phil (January 2008), ""Indefinite "Nikkis" in a World of Hyperreality: An Interview with Nikki S. Lee."", Chicago Art Journal, 18: 76–93
  14. ^ University of Michigan (19 August 2009), Nikki S. Lee - Parts and Projects – via YouTube
  15. ^ Waltener, Shane. "The Real Nikki." Modern Painters 17, no. 1 (2004): 67-69.
  16. ^
  • "Nikki S. Lee". International Center of Photography. 2 March 2016. Retrieved 2018-05-11.

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