Interview by Geoffrey Batchen & Nell McClister
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taryn simon, charles irvin fain, scene of the crime, the snake river, melba, idaho served 18 years of a death sentence for murder, rape, and kidnapping, 2002
Looking at artwork online tends to feel cheap, like cheating: Whatever aura a work might possess is usually dissipated by pixelation, miniaturization, and the cold context of a screen among millions, a webpage among billions. Looking at Taryn SimonÃ¢s work online is no exception, though itÃ¢s not exactly the aura of her work thatÃ¢s lost in the translation to cyberspace. Indeed, her photographs, though sumptuous and striking, do not claim that special combination of self-sufficiency, uniqueness, and mystery traditionally denied to a reproduced work of art, be it mechanical or digital. In fact, her work might seem to lend itself perfectly to reproduction on the web where images can be matched with such a wealth and range of information about who, what, where, when, and why that they genuinely flicker into documentary blips, which is on one level the highest incarnation of SimonÃ¢s images. But it is the fickle, often mendacious nature of the web that stands in starkest contradiction to SimonÃ¢s aim, which is, even more than composing and printing images themselves, truth-telling.
SimonÃ¢s celebrated 2000-1 body of work Ã¢The InnocentsÃ¢ began as a New York Times Magazine project; the lush Umbrage Editions book includes a commentary by lawyers Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, founders of the Innocence Project, which has brought more than 100 post-conviction exonerations based on DNA evidence. Obviously Ã¢The InnocentsÃ¢ belongs less to the rarefied art world than to the journalistic tradition of uncovering personal stories in order to illuminate societal ills and inequalities. Yet the recitation of the case in the text accompanying the images, which often show the wrongly convicted man (and one woman) at the scene of the crime, suggests the fallibility of such ideological documentary evidence: images generated to identify a perpetratorÃ¢sketches, mugshotsÃ¢are often used to manipulate the truth, whether or not there is malice aforethought. In one case, Simon focuses on the fact that a police sketch was given so much authority that the victim forgot the actual appearance of the attacker and instead focused on identifying the person who looked most like the sketch.
The role of SimonÃ¢s own images could be seen as righting a wrong, except that they also slyly mislead, weaving a false narrative whose veracity is traditionally promised by the nature of the medium. We see not what the witness saw, but what the witness thought he or she saw. We see a person who Ã¢fit the description,Ã¢ but was the wrong person. We see a person at a crime scene where he had years ago been Ã¢placed,Ã¢ but in some cases, had never visited since the crimeÃ¢never been there at all. We see a carefully constructed image geared to give the wrong impression.
Such implications bump us out of the purely documentary realm where images are presented as truth. The presence of the explanatory text further exposes the photograph as limited or fragmentary rather than authoritative. SimonÃ¢s project falls under the rubric of what Allan Sekula has labeled Ã¢anti-photojournalism,Ã¢ photography that aims not to capture a defining image or pretend to truth, but rather which calls to be treated simply as a language. SekulaÃ¢s works update the social realism inherited from photographers like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, who brought the presence and the humanity of the socially invisible to public attention. Sekula wields his camera in a modified documentary style that consciously avoids overstatement, complementing his visuals with a narrative that likewise eschews the dramatic. SimonÃ¢s photographs are likewise anything but Ã¢defining,Ã¢ though they are carefully composed and printed, aesthetically conscious to the extreme, and work to isolate the subject, to suspend it for a momentÃ¢to celebrate it, no matter how perversely. They are also clearly undoctored, which both amplifies the effect of the real-world information that accompanies it and emphasizes the inherent artifice of the image.
Despite their high degree of finish, the photographs display a decided lack of excitement that is an important feature of SimonÃ¢s work. She has a knack for creating a kind of image that would look utterly empty on its own: not only indifferent, but forlorn. Her most recent series, Ã¢An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,Ã¢ includes a shot from a window of a modified airplane wing, a view into a news show set, and a glimpse of a projected forest on a wall. But as with her earlier work, the paragraph or two that Simon writes to accompany each image could be said to furnish each subject even more than the image itself does. We can read that the airplane belongs to a company called Weather Modification, Inc. and that the device on its wing generates silver iodide crystals that cause rainÃ¢an up-and-coming and controversial national security strategy. The television studio, it turns out, is partly a U.S.-run satellite channel that broadcasts translated American content and commentary on American policy in Arabic countries. Foundation Repair . The third image was taken at Microsoft Home, a site of intensive research and prototype development of concepts for a futuristic, fully mechanized domestic space activated by voice and gesture recognition, integrated displays, and automated mood lighting. The Home is closed to the public.
Viewing one of these works involves looking briefly at the image, then looking away to read the text, and then looking anew at the image, lingering on it, drinking it in fully once it is loaded with meaning. oracle server hosting . By that point, it is practically a hybrid of text and photograph: it is charged. SimonÃ¢s brand of social realism is thus also, perhaps primarily, a form of critical practice that calls into question its own medium. In this sequential process of viewing, the movement of the two inadequate media finding their complement becomes explicit. More to the point, the role of knowledge in viewing an image makes itself felt. In light of the information given, the image changes dramatically and irrevocably: it is, quite literally, no longer unassuming. This lesson obviously has far-reaching implications. The textÃ¢s description becomes definitive. Once one has read, for example, about the CIAÃ¢s alleged support of Abstract Expressionism as a pro-American strategy during the Cold War, it is no longer possible to see the image of two large shaped canvases by Thomas Downing hanging in the CIA headquarters as in any way innocent. The unpeopled hallway fairly reeks with ideology.
taryn simon, the central intelligence agency, art cia original headquarters building, langley, virginia, chromogenic color print
The image/text combination does not become authoritative. On the contrary, their relation calls to mind Martha RoslerÃ¢s landmark 1974Ã¢75 project Ã¢The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems,Ã¢ which with a combination of image and text proposes the failure of either Ã¢systemÃ¢ to approach truth, be it representational or social. Both Rosler and Simon seek to comment on some unpleasant and neglected aspects of life in America: homelessness and poverty on the Bowery; racial and class injustice on Death Row; and in Ã¢American Index,Ã¢ the gamut from religious and political absurdity and cruelty in the name of science to pathological narcissism, governmental paranoia, and so on. Both Rosler and Simon suspend the authority of both word and image, and in SimonÃ¢s case, there is yet a further suspension: the explicit narrative of untruth, secrecy, hiddenness, and invisibility throws the subjects themselves into question, aside from their representation. Who sees these sites? Who hides them? And what do they hide?
In the secrecy and subtext of her subjects lies SimonÃ¢s subversive updating of the genre of Walker Evans-style social realism in photography. If Rosler questions the representation of a subject like The Bowery, challenging both photography and language as purveyors of social truth behind the ostensible subject, Simon chooses subjects whose hiddenness reveals much and whose mute plainness speaks volumes. SimonÃ¢s subject is not only the limitations of the visual or linguistic media, but more to the point, the contingency of truth, its ideological dimension, and especially that of its veiling.
In preventing us from settling into these images, from accepting their authority, Simon does us a great service. These Ã¢unseenÃ¢ sites call out for recognition for what they are. Here on view, on the record, they demand to be fully known, something that an image by itself cannot confer. The image itself does not beg to be evocative: it is what it is, and we are told what it is. But the truth is that photography canÃ¢t show us everything. We are reminded that we have to find out a lot of things for ourselves.
taryn simon, nuclear waste encapsulation and storage facility cherenkov radiation hanford site, u.s. department of energy, southeastern washington state, chromogenic color print
Geoffrey Batchen: Taryn, I wonder how youÃ¢d place your own photographic practice within a history of such practices? It seems to borrow equally from documentary, conceptual art, and photojournalism. Is Ã¢conceptual documentaryÃ¢ a term youÃ¢d be comfortable with?
TARYN SIMON: I prefer to have people continually re-define what [photography] is and may be. Identifying genres in photographic practice often involves a commitment to traditional thinking. Current generations are no longer working in such clear forms [in any domain]. Everything is very quickly becoming interdisciplinary. People are continually trying to place the work in a comfortable envelope and are often confounded by what envelope that may be. It bridges a number of long-established definitions: documentary, political, and conceptual. I prefer that it float between and in and out of everything.
taryn simon, white tiger (kenny), selective inbreeding turpentine creek wildlife refuge and foundation, eureka springs, arkansas, chromogenic color print
Batchen: Your photographs are often studiously frontal and undemonstrative. Could you say something about your aesthetic choices as a photographer when confronted with a particular subject? Why the deadpan approach? Why color photography and not black and white?
SIMON: The frontal, deadpan that you observe represents a certain reserve. In confronting loaded subject matter, I often choose to avoid any editorialized, spoon-fed emotion or angle. By doing so, my personal distance from the subject is built into the audienceÃ¢s experience of engaging with the photograph. IÃ¢m avoiding a stance of Ã¢understandingÃ¢ or of having knowledge that others donÃ¢t have. It says: Ã¢Here it is, and I donÃ¢t really know.Ã¢ In my own work, I avoid that which claims to have a closeness with its subject. It alienates the viewer, relieves tension, and cheapens the impact. This is often something people use to critique the work. It can be seen without emotion. For me, the reserve, the distance is what the emotion inhabits. As for color, it was never a question. I always try to avoid nostalgia, although it becomes harder with the advent of digital processes. There is a very specific palette in the work, which is programmed to seduce.
Batchen: How do you feel about the use of fiction in contemporary documentary photography (as in the work of Walid Raad) or abstraction or manipulation (as in the work of Andreas Gursky)? What is the function of Ã¢truthÃ¢ in your own work?
SIMON: Documentary photography is becoming more illustrative as people become more familiar with photographyÃ¢s limitations and vulnerabilities. Reality has always been interpreted through layers of manipulation, abstraction, and intervention. But now, it is very much on the surface. I like this honesty about its dishonesty. Every photograph has many truths and none. Photographs are ambiguous, no matter how seemingly scientific they appear to be. They are always subject to an uncontrollable context. This is a tired statement, but worth repeating. My reliance on text is where I try to reign in the ambiguity. It is in this relationship that I can control and [use to] steer interpretation in my intended direction. Again, the text is reserved, like the photograph, and for the same reasons. That said, the photograph can dream and slip away into abstraction and form while the text sits fixed to the floor anchoring.
taryn simon, playboy, braille edition, playboy enterprises, inc., new york, new york, chromogenic color print
Batchen: Your first book, The Innocents (2003), comprised interviews with and photographs of Americans convicted of serious crimes who had subsequently been freed on the basis of DNA evidence (some of them 18 years after being incarcerated). ItÃ¢s a powerful condemnation of the American justice system, but itÃ¢s also a critical commentary on the power of the photograph to distort the memories of eyewitnesses and facilitate mistaken identity. Your own photographs for this project sometimes show your subjects posing self-consciously at the scene of a crime that they didnÃ¢t commit. Could you explain your approach to this project?
SIMON: Photographing the wrongfully convicted at the scene of the crime where they never were (as they didnÃ¢t commit the crime) highlights the complicated and dangerous relationship between truth and fiction in their lives and in photography. This was integral to the projectÃ¢s position. Some, itÃ¢s worth noting, would not return to the scene of the crime as they didnÃ¢t want to have any familiarity with a site of which they had always claimed to have no knowledgeÃ¢that by going there and gaining familiarity, it would make them appear guilty. This fear exposes the power and danger of imaging. I set up very strict parameters for myself when taking these photographs. Often, many of them fail visually in honor of the conceptual framework. My photographic choices and background selections were limited and directed by content. I wasnÃ¢t free to respond visually and aesthetically in all instances. Their self-consciousness is never posed. Subjects were very rarely directed. There is often a discomfort between them and the camera. They are standing before the very thing that initiated their traumatic history, which was founded on lies and misinterpretation. By this, IÃ¢m referring to the fact that the majority of the wrongful convictions in the book were the result of an eyewitness or victim being manipulated or mistaken in their engagement with photographs of the perpetrator. I wanted that discomfort and unfathomable conflation of reality and fiction to be evident within the photograph. The uneasy reserve should tremble ever so slightly beneath the surface.
Batchen: Your most recent project, Ã¢An American Index of the Hidden and UnfamiliarÃ¢ (2007), is the end result of a personal quest to document some of AmericaÃ¢s most secret places, sites that arenÃ¢t typically seen by outsiders and to which photographers donÃ¢t usually get access. The fifty-seven subjects donÃ¢t seem related at first glance. Could you describe how you came to embark on this project and how you chose your sites?
SIMON: After completing The Innocents, I looked back through photographs I had taken and responded to through the years. I kept returning to a photograph I had taken at The Palace of the Revolution in Cuba. I was lured by its formal qualities: the geometry, lighting, and absence of the figure. It bordered on abstraction and had a disorienting structure. This was all sharpened by the fact that it was largely un-photographed, had no popularly distributed visual anchor, and remained inaccessible to the broader public. After September 11th, I decided to look for these sites: that which is foundational to AmericaÃ¢s daily functioning and mythology yet remains out-of-view, overlooked, or inaccessible to the American public. This was a time in which the American government and media were seeking secret sites beyond its borders. I wanted to look inward. The subjects are purposefully unrelated in a traditional form. There is a very intentional entropy in [choosing what] is photographed for this work. The use of the word Ã¢indexÃ¢ in the title is a play on the word, as it is glaringly not comprehensive and often chaotic. Viewers are meant to engage with subjects that have escaped their compartments. You jump from security to entertainment to science to government in a disarming and almost irresponsible fashion. By this, [the series] confronts accepted and traditional forms of ordering information, confronting the separation of the public and the experts. It reflects new orders of distribution like the internet, which challenge control. Site selection is personal, often reflecting my anxieties. I worked very hard to maintain a lack of order or any discernable formula, which is its own order, I know. I had chapter headings (government, science, religion…) and made many lists. I was always aware of one getting too heavy and crushing the chaos. Initially the choices were conceptual ones. I was looking for very specific complications, something with a quaking presence, a white noise. Then I had to consider the visual. That said, as many of these had no visual references, I had to either take a blind risk or proceed with imaginations from oral descriptions. Incidentally, the resulting images are never pure documentations of the space I encounter. There are admitted interventions in every image to make them more seductive and aesthetically successful.
taryn simon, hymenoplasty, cosmetic surgery, p.a., fort lauderdale, florida, chromogenic color print
Batchen: You insist that each of your photographs is exhibited or published with an extensive accompanying text. Why is this so necessary? Is photography incapable of functioning as an effective political tool without such an accompaniment?
SIMON: It can be the most powerful political tool without text. History has demonstrated that again and again. Photography is a prostituteÃ¢used to promote so many agendas, both inadvertently and purposefully. The use of text is an effort to avoid other contexts, to avoid being used. It acknowledges photographyÃ¢s limitations (which are often its beauty) through an effort to own its framework.
taryn simon, cryopreservation unit cryonics institute, clinton township, michigan, chromogenic color print
Batchen: You also do work for news magazines. IsnÃ¢t this a more effective vehicle for the kind of work that you do? Why show in art galleries?
SIMON: No. The workÃ¢s impact stems from the fact that one individual is accomplishing and producing this on her own, completely independent of anybodyÃ¢s choices, ideas, texts, fears, politics, agendas. Built into its reception is the impossibility of it all Ã¢ that one person crossed all these lines. Working for the New York Times allows me to access that which I could never access on my own: Abu Mazen, Assad, Tsipi Livni, etc… I rarely accept assignments for anything I could accomplish on my own. Showing in museums is currently the most democratic and pure form in which to engage with the public. ThatÃ¢s not to pretend that one isnÃ¢t always going to be subject to certain constraints, contexts and agendas. It also allows the viewer to see the photograph in its most complete form. I shoot with a large format camera, which deserves and wants more than newsprint.
Batchen: When you do show in gallery spaces, you go to a lot of effort to control the way that we encounter your work. For your recent exhibition at the Whitney Museum, for example, the walls were repainted Super White rather than their usual cream, and the lighting was turned up, at your insistence, to seven times its normal level. Each of your photographs was printed to a large scale and was hung equidistant from the next. Why go to all this trouble? What kind of experience are you looking for in your exhibitions?
SIMON: More and more layers of control. Like I said before, so often photography is just passed off and used. Its author lets it slip into unintended and unexpected zones. I try to own the entire experience to whatever degree I can.
Batchen: Ã¢m wondering where we should look for the content of your work? At the photographs as individual pictures? At the combination of text and image in each case? Or should we be concentrating on the overall conceptual structure that underpins the work?
SIMON: In Ã¢An American Index,Ã¢ itÃ¢s in all three. You arrive at the work visually and digest it as an aesthetic object, often not knowing what youÃ¢re looking at. You then discover the text, which centers your focus and allows you to rediscover the image. fix foundation . The two play back and forth in this manner until you move on to the next. Their finest form is in a series, in which you jump very abruptly from one to the next. This awkward movement and disorienting structure mirrors a confused moment in American history and considers the distribution and reception of accurate information.
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