American Surfaces: Taryn Simon's 'An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’

by Aaron Schuman

Originally published in Spot, Houston Center of Photography, Winter 2007

     As a young girl, Taryn Simon was literally surrounded by photographs that were both hidden and unfamiliar. ‘My father took tons of pictures,’ she explains, ‘There were Kodachrome slides everywhere, and sometimes he would get us all together and give these formal slideshows.’  Whereas most American families might gather in their living room to relive a recent birthday party, an anniversary, a trip to the beach, or a holiday at Disneyworld, the Simon’s slideshows were very different.  Whilst working for the State Department, Simon’s father had been stationed in the USSR at the height of the Cold War, in Bangkok during the Vietnam War, and had travelled to Afghanistan, Iran and Israel on government business in subsequent years, and he always photographed these trips extensively.  In a time when most Americans were hardly aware of the world beyond their country’s borders, Simon was being fed first-hand accounts of the state of affairs in the most shadowy international posts within contemporary American history.   
     Describing herself as ‘a bit of a hippy kid’, Simon initially pursued environmental sciences when she began at Brown University in 1993, but she quickly transferred to a degree in art semiotics, at the same time taking every opportunity to study photography at the neighbouring Rhode Island School Design.  ‘You were only meant to take one RISD class per term, but I was always over there and was very insistent that I be allowed to take more classes, so they ended up practically giving me a photography education for free.’  Between terms, Simon would assist any photographer that would let her, ‘Including a Toys R’ Us catalogue photographer for a whole summer,’ she says with both a touch of pride and embarrassment.
     Simon seems to possess a rare instinct for dogged perseverance, and just a few years after finishing university, she was already freelancing for various publications including the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, travelling as far as the Caucuses to photograph injured Chechen rebels, and to Cuba to document Castro and the opulent Palace of the Revolution.  Yet her remarkable ambitiousness drove her towards work that may have a greater longevity – ‘something that wouldn’t end up in the garbage pail a week later’ - and could make a more lasting impression than conventional photojournalism.  In 2001 she applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, one of the most prestigious, generous and creatively liberating grants in the world, and one that has also sponsored some of the greatest photographic portfolios of the last century, by the likes of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Joel Sternfeld, Mitch Epstein and most famously, Robert Frank’s The Americans.  Much to her own surprise, she was awarded it.  ‘My thesis was very tight, but I never thought that I’d get it’, she explains, ‘Once I did, it gave me the freedom, financially, to put all of my time and energy into my own work’. 
     The resulting series, The Innocents, came about through collaboration with The Innocents Project, an organization founded by leading civil rights attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, which seeks to exonerate American inmates who have been wrongfully convicted.  In the photographs, Simon took a rather frank but fascinating approach, making a formal portrait of each ‘innocent’ in a location that was vital to the legal case against them; the scene of misidentification, the scene of arrest, the alibi location or the scene of the crime itself.  Not only do the project’s conceptual foundations effectively question the justice system, but the actual images also point to the malevolent role that photography itself often plays in the falsification of facts and the manipulation of the truth.  As she writes in the book’s forward, ‘Photography’s ability to blur truth and fiction is one of its most compelling qualities.  But when misused as part of a prosecutor’s arsenal, this ambiguity can have severe, even lethal consequences…[P]hotography’s ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another.’ 
     Stylistically, The Innocents adopted the ‘narrative’ aesthetic dominant in the 1990s – Gregory Crewdson, Philip-Lorca DiCorcia, etc.– which grew in importance and popularity as photography’s accuracy was not only called into question, but also became a primary source of inspiration for many photographers.  Today, the genre is very familiar: expressionless figures stoically inhabiting ordinary yet otherworldly realms, the scenarios’ falsity further emphasized by overtly cinematographic key-lighting and an eerily stagnant atmosphere.  But as Simon explains, this approach was not flippantly appropriated to simply cater to art-world tastes.  Instead, it was chosen precisely because, both visually and conceptually, it suited her subject matter perfectly.  ‘I was going to the scene of a crime with people who had never been there, because they hadn’t committed the crime.  So the light was very much used as an interrogating force, which also separated the subject from the background.  It was a way of articulating, within the image, this odd relationship between the person and the place.’  Ultimately, the series is relentless and remarkably powerful specifically because of it considered consistency, and it is clear from what followed that Simon is certainly not one to rely on aesthetic gimmickry or typological repetition to bring form and meaning to her work.
     Simon’s most recent portfolio, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, is an incredibly diverse and astounding tome; so far, the twenty-first century’s finest response to a longstanding tradition within American photography, described by Robert Frank in his own 1954 Guggenheim application as, ‘The making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present.’  In the same proposal, Frank presented a catalogue of potential subject-matter for what eventually became The Americans: ‘a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none, the farmer and his children, a new house and a warped clapboard house, the dictation of taste, the dream of grandeur, advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and post offices and backyards.’  American Index presents a resolutely more obscure collection of curiosities, but just as accurately reflects the United States at a very particular point in its history: a nuclear waste storage facility, a ‘corpse farm’, a serpent handler, Mexicans detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a cryopreservation unit, a hibernating bear, Death-Star II, transatlantic sub-marine telecommunication cables reaching American soil, an inbred white tiger, stacks of sexual assault kits awaiting DNA analysis, a Braille edition of Playboy, and so on.  Whereas earlier photographers sought to define America through that which was common – ‘elevating the casual, the everyday and the literal into specific, permanent symbols’, as Lincoln Kirstein described it in his introduction to Walker Evan’s American Photographs  - Simon chooses to symbolise the country’s current incarnation precisely through that which is official, exceptional and freakishly extraordinary.  ‘It’s my response to a moment when America is looking to understand things, and to dig deeper outside of its borders.  I wanted to do the same thing, but within American borders.  That’s why it’s also called ‘Unfamiliar’. Because I didn’t want it to be me saying, “Look, I got into all the deepest pockets.”  That’s not the point, and I can’t stand photography that pretends to understand or know its subject.  That’s why I always try to create this distance where the viewer can see that, like them, I’m not in the know.  I’m at a distance too.’
     As Simon points out, like the medium of photography itself, there’s something remarkably refreshing about the apparent promise of transparency that these images offer but such superficial notions of clarity are rapidly compromised and tainted once we realise that, despite having vicariously been given access to previously alien worlds, we still know little more that we did before. ‘In each photograph there is good and evil, and that reflects the time we’re in right now. There are these polar forces at play, and it’s just so confusing’, she explains.  ‘Whenever you look behind the curtain, you realise that what you’ve come to rely on, this secure force, is actually crumbling and mouldy.  That’s reality, but seeing it isn’t going to cure anything.  It’s only going to create further awareness of the mould.’   Also in his introduction to American Photographs, written nearly seventy years ago, Lincoln Kirstein poetically proclaims, ‘Here are the records of the age before an imminent collapse.  [These] pictures exist to testify to the symptoms of waste and selfishness that caused the ruin, and to salvage whatever was splendid for the future reference of the survivors.’  Now that does seem familiar.

‘Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ is at the Photographers’ Gallery until 11th November 2007.  The monograph, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, is published by Steidl.


Aaron Schuman Photography
Copyright © Aaron Schuman, 2008. All Rights Reserved.
This site and all of its contents may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form, without the written permission
of Aaron Schuman, and other additional artists involved in the production of specific works exhibited on this site.