Taryn Simon, “White Tiger (Kenny), Selective Inbreeding, Turpentine Creek WIldlife Refuge, Eureka Springs, Ark,” from An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar
I always enjoy it when blogger Joerg Colberg takes the time to flesh out his thoughts about photography at Conscientious, and wish he’d write more often. Yesterday, however, he authored a post about photographer Taryn Simon that was so puzzling, I feel moved to respond.
In an attempt to loosely define what sort of photography he enjoyed, Joerg pitted himself against photography that contained “an element of entertainment,” singling out the young photographer, whose two books, in my opinion, demonstrate exceptional depth and vision. My contention isn’t simply that Joerg shortchanges Simon’s powerful photography—much of the work that’s championed on Conscientious leaves me cold, so there’s obviously a difference of personal tastes at play—but that his take on her projects is uncharacteristically shortsighted.
Joerg begins with a dismissal of most street photography, writing that the genre too frequently relies on simple visual gags that makes him feel as if he’s watching an episode of Friends. This allows Joerg to broaden the common denominator of his displeasure to the vague “entertainment” factor. “I have noticed that the entertainment element appears to be quite common,” he writes. “Providing visual thrills, and then being left with (a feeling of)… ‘been there, seen that,’ and now we have to move on to see something even more exciting—because, after all, what would be entertainment without excitement?” At this point, I’m interested, but not quite sure where Joerg’s going with all this. The last place I expected him to arrive, though, is at the doorstep of Taryn Simon.
Taryn Simon, “Larry Mayes, Scene of the Arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary Indiana,” from The Innocents
Simon, just one depressing year older than I am, is a hugely successful photographer in both the art and editorial worlds, with an exhibition at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, representation at Gagosian, and spreads in publications like the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker under her belt. Moreover, I feel like she’s one of the rare hotshots who truly deserves the accolades. I became a fan with the publication of The Innocents, in which Simon made extraordinary portraits of more than 80 men and women who had done time in prison for crimes they were later exonerated of. Rather than systematically clicking off uniform headshots of them all, as so many contemporary photographers would have chosen to do, Simon brought the ex-cons to the scenes of the crimes they supposedly committed, and made dramatic, narrative images of them in these spots, accompanying the photographs with brief accounts of their injustices. (She occasionally photographed them at the sites where they were arrested, rather than at the crime scene, resulting in unforgettable portraits such as the one of Larry Mayes, who pathetically tried to hide between two filthy mattresses in an empty hotel room in Gary, Indiana.)
But Simon’s real masterwork—and the series that so bothers Joerg—is An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, which was widely celebrated in book and exhibition form last year. Here, Simon gains access to dozens of sites that are normally off-limits to unauthorized personnel, ranging from a hymenoplasty operating room to the federal government’s marijuana grow-room, and reports back with photographic records of the high-security spaces, as well as short explanations of what we’re looking at. On a purely photographic level, most are absolute knock-outs, and the breadth and imagination of Simon’s project, combined with its astute commentary on secrecy and closed-door dealings, make it one of the best bodies of American photography this decade.
Joerg, needless to say, disagrees. “Once you have seen these (places that Simon photographs), what is left?” he writes. “What does one actually learn from seeing the lobby of the CIA?… Once I know what the lobby of the CIA looks like there is nothing left to be seen.” This approach to looking at photography absolutely bewilders me. I certainly know what a jukebox looks like inside an empty barroom, but I’ll hang on to my copy of The Americans, thankyouverymuch.
Taryn Simon, “Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility Cherenkov Radiation Hanford Site, U.S. Department of Energy Southeastern Washington State,” from An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar
Joerg suggests here that a photograph shares a 1:1 relationship with its subject, which is to entirely misunderstand the medium, in addition to completely devaluing the art of art photography. In 1925, most people were familiar with what a common toilet bowl looked like, but that hardly nullifies the aesthetic worth of Edward Weston’s “Excusado.” True, it could be argued that Weston was teaching us to see familiar objects in new ways, which is quite different than drawing back the curtain from unfamiliar scenes. Following that argument, though, what are we to make of Francis Frith’s stunning albumen prints of Egypt, which gave most Westerners their first photographic glimpse of the exotic Sphinx and pyramids? Almost 150 years after Frith demonstrated what the Hall of Columns in Karnac looked like, I’m relieved that we haven’t collectively decided that “there’s nothing left to see,” and have instead treasured these as some of the most remarkable photographs in the history of photography.
Joerg continues his baffling line of reasoning by arguing that Simon’s photographs are actually bad for us. “Because whereas before we saw the photograph of the lobby of the CIA,” he writes, “we had some ideas about what it would look like, with a certain thrill maybe, now that we know, the thrill is gone. Imagination has been replaced by the mundane.” I have always admired Joerg for his critical, common-sense approach to the issues of photography, but this point is such a stretch that I began to wonder if he was simply having a laugh. Not only have I never wondered, much less dreamt up marvelous mental images of what the CIA lobby looks like, but I had also never pondered the visual existence of bodies being left out to rot for forensic anthropology students to examine, the US Customs’ contraband room at JFK airport, or avalanche-inducing grenade explosions, until seeing them in An American Index. But Simon’s photographs-which hardly begin to tell the whole story of anything-compelled me to consider the nature and politics of secrecy, the flow of information, and the aesthetic and pragmatic design of top-security hiding spots.
Taryn Simon, “U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Contraband Room, John F. Kennedy International Airport, Queens, New York,” from An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar
What makes Simon’s work so remarkable, though, is that she actually makes good photographs, so that her art isn’t constrained by its conceptual parameters. Her work is notable because it eschews the imagination-sapped, typological style of shooting that remains so prevalent today. I could choose from countless artists working in this mode, but consider the approaches of Shelburne Thurber or Richard Ross for points of contrast. In Thurber’s interiors of psychiatrists’ offices and Ross’ study of underground shelters, the photographers so narrowly limit their subjects and photographic choices, once the project is defined, its execution is merely procedural. As a result, the images are entirely tedious, and depend wholly on the subject matter for any intrinsic interest. I am a steadfast fan of many artists who have worked with typological strategies, but an overwhelming number of contemporary photographers are automatically defaulting to that style of shooting, rather than developing a personal vision that requires occasionally changing lenses, finding different camera angles, or varying the lighting techniques. (How bizarre that we must applaud photographers for doing this.)
Simon, on the other hand, while having a conceptually focused premise for her series, isn’t confined by quasi-systematic shooting strategies or overly narrow subject matter. She pulls back wide for her portrait of the serpent handler; shoots the star-forming Pacman Nebula through a telescope at a national observatory; creates a Pollock-like abstraction at the infectious medical waste treatment center; and zooms in tight for a beautifully lit shot of a braille Playboy. If her actual photography wasn’t so well-executed, the project would be a failure, but as it is, she’s one of the last people about which can be said, as Joerg maintained, “There is nothing left to think about, and there is no space for our own imagination.”
At the most museum-tour-guide level, Simon’s photographs invite me to think about what top-secret places I take for granted every day. What places like these exist in Portland, and by extension, how many more places are off-limits when you’re a child. I also have to consider the impressiveness of Simon’s ability to gain access to these spots. She might have some credentials and a smudge of clout, but I don’t image that a phonecall from Larry Gagosian alone prompted the World Knights of the Klu Klux Klan to invite Simon into their “Imperial Office.”
Taryn Simon, “Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan” from An American Index of the Hidden and Familiar
These sorts of anecdotal, circumstance-based thoughts don’t even begin to unfold the weight of the photographs themselves, though, most of which are loaded with nuanced implications and smart aesthetic judgments. These are too numerous to elaborate on here, but I will suffice it to say that her portraits resonate with me just as much as those of Alec Soth (which I intend as steep praise), and that her unpopulated interiors and landscapes are more striking than nearly any other young artist working in a similar vein today.
“What does one actually learn from seeing the lobby of the CIA?” Joerg asks. Well, very little, my esteemed colleague. But then, I never thought that looking at art was a fact-finding mission. When I think about what I’ve learned from looking at William Egglestons, I immediately answer, “the way afternoon sunlight bounces off a teenager’s red hair at the Tastee Freeze.” From Walker Evans I learned that sometimes the best strategy is to play your cards close to your vest and to step back for something like a detached viewpoint. But from Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to Noele Lusano, whom I just learned about today (via), I continue to learn that it’s how you look at the world that matters as much as what you choose to look at, and moreover, that the world is full of mystery and beauty. One look is rarely enough.