Growing up in the ’60s, when Melanie Walker and her sister would come home complaining about a problem at school, their father would joke, “It’s Miss Understood, 1965,” as though they’d been crowned in some Bizarro World beauty pageant.
The recurring joke stuck with Walker, who shared her father’s love of puns and word play, as well as his passion for photography. Later in life as a photographic artist, she found herself mulling over the prefix mis-: when added to a word it means “badly” or “unfavorably” or “in a suspicious manner.” Why, Walker wondered, are women called Miss followed by their father’s name until marriage — what biases are implied through this language?
Her thought became a project she launched in the early ’90s dubbed The Mis-Nomer Pageant. In this series of self-portraits, Walker became “Mis-Allegiance,” a forlorn-looking Lady Columbia in her American flag gown, holding the Earth in her arms like a baby, the environment behind her scorched and barren; she became “Mis-Justice,” a stern and noir Lady Justice offering up heavily tipped scales; she became “Mis-Ology,” a human lamp casting light from her skull into a dark and nearly empty room.
“Nobody really paid much attention to [the project] when I did it initially,” Walker says. “After the 2016 election, I felt like it was time to bring it back to life. I feel like so much of my drive with that project has to do with the urgency of the times that we’re living in right now.”
Her work caught the eye of photographers Meg Griffiths and Frances Jakubek, who were dreaming up a project to celebrate the centennial of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. But Griffiths and Jakubek wanted to place the milestone in the light of historical context: Many black women (and men) were unable to vote for decades more under the racist burdens of state-legislated poll taxes and literacy tests.
“In order to have a rich and thoughtful response to this anniversary, which is not an anniversary for all to celebrate, we wanted to invite a diverse group of women whose perspectives would not be the same,” Griffiths told NPR in late August. Griffiths was inspired by a Sojourner Truth quote: “Women’s fates were linked, but not because they were the same.”
In the summer of 2019, Griffiths and Jakubek asked 100 women across the United States to join in A Yellow Rose Project, a photographic collaboration so-called because of the flowers women wore on their lapels as they stood shoulder to shoulder in front of the Tennessee State Capitol (the final state needed to ratify the 19th Amendment). The project, including pieces from Walker’s Mis-Nomer Pageant, will be on display at the Colorado Photographic Arts Center in Denver from Oct. 9 through Nov. 21.
Walker has just wrapped up an online class for one of her courses in photography at CU-Boulder when we connect. It’s the afternoon before the first presidential debate, and though Walker fully intends to vote, she can’t bring herself to watch what she knows will be a spectacle in the worst sense of the word. She’s been “in panic mode” since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I’m trying not to indulge in the news too much,” she says. “Trying to just keep my nose to the grindstone.”
Walker’s had her nose to the proverbial grindstone since she seriously began taking pictures at around 15. Her father, Todd Walker, was a prolific photographer, printmaker and bookmaker for more than 60 years of his life. His advertising photographs were featured in national magazines such as Life and the Saturday Evening Post. Her father’s work, often credited with pushing the conventional boundaries of photography, gave a young Melanie a glimpse at the magic of film at an early age.
“I remember being shocked to find out that not everybody’s father made pictures,” Walker says. “And I also remember being shocked to find out that my father making pictures was how he supported the family. He would work all day at the studio that he shared with an old family friend and then he would come home and be up until like 2 or 3 in the morning, just working in his own space, exploring and pondering and finding out what he could do to push the envelope in terms of photography.”
Walker found her own path in the artform, often blurring the line between real and imagined through techniques like gum printing, which gives photographs a painterly quality. Legally blind in one eye, much of Walker’s work plays with mismatched patterns and layering with transparent materials “to try to convey how I experience the world.”
“My hope with my work is that maybe it’s a window to compassion and understanding for people who are fully sighted,” she says. “I feel like I have the potential to be a bridge between the blind and the sighted communities.”
Likewise, A Yellow Rose Project hopes to be a bridge between the past and the present, a window to compassion for those this country has historically disenfranchiased, and a reminder of how many are still disenfranchised today. Across the world, the U.S. is the only democracy to permanently deny voting rights to felons for all crimes — and a disproportionate number of them are black.
Humans often deal in absolutes, binaries, systems that allow us to simplify the world so we can understand it. U.S. culture has done the same to history, often framing what we want to see instead looking at the larger picture.
“I grew up with this innate understanding of the power of the image and how people believe images without considering the manipulation that goes on behind them, whether it be psychological or a slight shift in perspective,” Walker says. “I’ve always been really interested in what goes on outside the frame.”
Outside the frame of most U.S. history classes, many in this country still have no voice in our democracy. From purging tens of thousands of presumed felons from voter-registration records in Florida to refusing to adopt mail-in voting in Mississippi, voting is still a privilege for many, not a right. Artists like Walker help re-frame history so we can see the whole picture.