‘Prostitutes’ and ‘Heavy Anchors’: the photographic work of Taryn Simon

‘Prostitutes’ and ‘Heavy Anchors’: the photographic work of Taryn Simon

This paper was written for the conference Displaying Word and Image (University of Ulster, Belfast, 4-6 June 2010) and presented in the panel ‘Con-text: Displaying Photographs’.

When entering the space dedicated to Taryn Simon’s work at the Photographer’s Gallery in London, part of the 2009 Deutsche Bank prize exhibition, what I found most striking was the unusual behaviour of the audience. The spectators were particularly still and concentrated – but often they weren’t focusing their attention to the large scale images chosen as a selection of Simon’s shortlisted work, ‘An American Index of the Hidden and the Unfamiliar’; instead, they were intently reading the long and detailed captions that accompanied each photograph. Text represents an essential component of Simon’s project, an inventory of some of the most secret and unexplored sites in the U.S., that investigates the foundations of American identity, mythology, and politics. The fifty-seven pictures that constitute the body of work are all complemented with extensive and well researched captions, which introduce the viewer to a large variety of scenarios that range from an avian quarantine facility, nuclear waste encapsulation, hymenoplasty cosmetic surgery, cryopreservation, a marijuana research centre, to Microsoft house and the Playboy Mansion – to give just a few examples. Although the presence of text is not uncommon in museums, the written word is usually overlooked by the impatient and distracted art consumer; neglected as a tedious supplement to the actual piece, or sometimes deliberately ignored as constraining and overtly didactic. The pronounced interest of the audience in Simon’s factual and plainly stated captions was, then, quite remarkable – especially considering the alluring beauty of her photographs; a compelling presence that competes for the viewer’s attention.

It is exactly this compelling presence that, in Salman Rushdie’s opinion, constitutes the revealing force of the work, elevating the image to a position of authority, as the main source for the establishment of meaning. In his foreword to Simon’s monograph, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, he acknowledges the integral role played by the text, but concludes: ‘When a photographer comes up with an image as potently expressive as that, even a dedicated word-person such as myself is bound to concede that such a picture is worth at least a thousand words.’ This image described by Rushdie is the first photograph shown in the book, and is usually one of the images selected for smaller exhibitions of the work. It is undoubtedly enticing in its stark chromatism and geometrical abstraction, but is this image really worth a thousand words? Is any image worth a thousand words? Taryn Simon does not need a thousand words, but only 206, to undermine this commonplace. In fact, the long caption that accompanies the photograph, providing detailed information about its subject, origin, and location, completely changes the viewer’s perception and understanding of the image. We read that the photograph was taken at the nuclear waste encapsulation and storage facility at Hanford Site, part of the US Department of Energy; and that the blue glow depicted is created by the Cherenkov Effect; ‘the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light through a transparent medium.’ We are also told that the plutonium formerly produced in this complex was used in the Nagasaki atomic bomb, and that it is one of the most contaminated sites in the US.

The movement from photograph to text, then from text back to photograph, charges this beautiful image with the specificity of contextual meaning. ‘Her images hold their own’, states Rushdie, implying a rivalry between text and image finally won by the autonomy and evocativeness of the second. But it is exactly this hierarchical opposition between text and image that Simon’s work challenges, creating a compelling hybrid of text and photography where the visual and the written are not held in competition or unbridgeable distance, but co-exist and complement each other in a productive dialogue. This strategic interdependence of image and text suspends the authority of both, disrupting an understanding of the photographic image as self-sufficient and evidential, that has been for a long time at the foundation of traditional documentary practices. Taryn Simon is strongly aware that (as decades of theoretical criticism have highlighted) the supposed transparency of photographs, the sheer nakedness of images, can increase exponentially their affective power, making them efficient agents for disseminating ideas and influencing judgement. The obtuse muteness of photographs makes them the perfect dummies for ventriloquist acts.

One of Simon’s first major projects, ‘The Innocents’, produced for the New York Times in 2002, explored the role of photography in the criminal justice system, portraying Americans wrongfully convicted to death row, who had subsequently been freed on the basis on DNA evidence. In all of the cases, photography played an important role in the mistaken identification of the perpetrators and in the distortion of eyewitnesses’ memories. Commenting on her own work, Simon writes: ‘This project stresses the cost of ignoring the limitations of photography and minimising the context in which photographic images are presented. Nowhere are the material effects of ignoring a photograph’s context as profound as in the misidentification that leads to the imprisonment of an innocent person.’ Rather than an indisputable vehicle of truth, photography turns into an unreliable witness, partial, malleable and deceptive. Simon undermines the claimed reliability of images as transparent depictions of the real, destabilising accepted conventions and ideological responses. Her self-reflective artistic strategy exposes the intrinsic ambiguity of the photographic medium and investigates the notion of evidentiary proof as an influential means for processing, systematising and interpreting reality.

‘Evidence’, Simon claims, ‘does not exist in a closed system. Like photography, it cannot exit apart from its context, or outside of the modes by which it circulates.’ The meaning of the term ‘evidence’ shifts here from its usual positive connotations of testimony, document and indubitable proof, to the opposing idea of a naturalised product of specific regimes of knowledge and truth. Michel Foucault defined evidence not as an instrument of enlightenment, but as a means of manipulation and constraint, as a deceptive sedative that makes acceptable imposed ways of seeing and strategies of power, by disguising the submissive passivity of our gaze as habit, social convention, necessity, nature. Following Foucault, John Tagg has recently argued, in The Disciplinary Frame, that the status of photography as an instrument of knowledge and evidence was not technologically defined, but was institutionally produced and negotiated within a disciplinary apparatus of capture, based on practices of surveillance, identification, control and archival recording. Drawing on his earlier work, The Burden of Representation, Tagg reasserts that photographic claims to veracity and transparency must be circumscribed within particular regimes of power; and that the inexhaustible openness of photographic images is always captured and framed as truth by the discursive apparatus that surrounds and circulates them. In a description of what he defines as ‘the violence of meaning’, Tagg writes: ‘…every photograph, like the sign, refers to every other, positively or negatively, by sympathy or exclusion, opens not to the guarantee of totality but on the undecidability of a network of cross-reference in which […] there are only differences and no positive terms, only differences and the kind of violence that insists they can be held in place.’ Aware that the photograph’s ambiguity stimulates a demand for narrative framing, and that meaning is always violently determined by contextual discourses and institutional modes of circulation, Taryn Simon added extensive supporting material to the portraits in ‘Innocents’, including captions, case profiles, and interviews, in an attempt to give a more adequate account of the cases.

‘An American Index of the Hidden and the Unfamiliar’ similarly combines seductively algid images with long and detailed captions, in a strategic attempt to gain control over her photographs and their interpretation. She stated in a recent interview: ‘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.[…] My reliance on text is where I try to reign in the ambiguity. It is in this relationship that I can control and steer interpretation in my intended direction […] The photograph can dream and slip away into abstraction and form while the text sits fixed to the floor anchoring.’ This statement makes overt reference to Barthes’ concept of anchorage, or the use of text to define the meaning of images, to ‘fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way to counter the terror of uncertain signs.’ Simons adds: ‘[Photography] can be the most powerful political tool without text. History has demonstrated that again and again. Photography is a prostitute—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 photography’s limitations (which are often its beauty) through an effort to own its framework.’ Simon’s heavy reliance on text represents the means through which she aims to recuperate some form of authority over the distribution and reception of her work; re-appropriating the contextual framework of the images in a manner that reflects upon the authority and function of both photographic and written documentation. She carefully stages the encounter of viewer with image, providing strict instructions as to how the exhibition space should be set up: the walls of the gallery have to be repainted Super White, the lighting turned up to seven times its normal level, the photos printed in a fixed format and hung equidistant from one another.

This strategic and attentively planned interdependence of image, text and display within the gallery space situates Simon’s work within a body of conceptual and critical documentary practices that can be traced back to the work of artists such as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Allan Sekula, or Martha Rosler. Yet, she refuses to be explicitly linked to this post-modern genealogy, or to categorise her photographic work, leaving it to float between, and play with, the genres of photojournalism, documentary realism, and conceptual art. Her photographs skillfully combine a frontal and undemonstrative impassivity with a seductive and sumptuous aesthetic sophistication. Carefully composed and lit and exhibited as large format prints, Simon’s images are never a ‘pure’ document of the scenarios she encounters; for she intervenes, shaping the subject and lighting the space to add to the visual allure of her photographs. She admits spending hours arranging the rotten fruits and vegetables confiscated from passengers by the US Customs and Border Protection and amassed in the Contraband Room of the JKF Airport in New York, so that they would pictorially resemble a still life.

This tension between veracity and artifice does not only inform Simon’s photographs on a formal and stylistic level, but through the sorts of subject she chooses to photograph. Examples of artificiality, camouflage, and simulation are frequently photographed: from the computer generated virtual simulations of military operations on urban terrain, to the mock trials and juries monitored and analysed by DOAR Litigation Consulting, to the professional actors and actresses trained to imitate real patients in the UCLA Medical Centre. Even when representing the natural world, she captures scenarios that are often totally constructed: the white tiger Kenny is the result of a selective inbreeding programme that causes mental retardation and physical malformations, the Great White Shark is held in captivity, the avalanche is induced using dynamite and military artillery. The artificiality of her images, then, reproduces and mirrors a ‘real’ word that is already fabricated and doctored. ‘Reality’, says Simon, ‘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.’ Her play with the polar notions of reality and artifice, documentary and fiction, moves back and forth, from the physical sites she visited to the images that depict them, from the signified to the signifier, from content to form.

As Geoffrey Batchen has observed, Simon’s work reflects upon and underscores the intrinsic ambivalence of photography, considered both as neutral revelation and discursive sign, constantly divided between the polar traditions of documentary realism and conceptual inter-textuality.  In this context, the written captions clearly highlight the limitations of the image, disrupting any claim to transparency or autonomy. The captivating beauty of her pictures is combined with an uneventful reticence: without the complementary presence of the text, it would be impossible to contextualize these images, or grasp the complexity of the issues examined in Simon’s work. Yet, the factual and objective explanations provided by the captions—even if detailed and well researched—are not sufficient to fully satisfy our desire to know more. In combination with the images, they do not furnish an answer, but instead stimulate curiosity and generate additional questions. The artist has claimed that ‘I’m avoiding a stance of ‘understanding’ or of having knowledge that others don’t have. It says: ‘Here it is, and I don’t really know.’ In my own work, I avoid that which claims to have closeness with its subject.’ Suspending the authority of both photographs and text, she encourages and points out the complicit gesture of the viewer in the process of signification.

Simon’s attentively planned interdependence of image, text and display in the gallery space does not provide a definitive and comprehensive account of the secret and unexplored sites in the US, as one could be deceived into believing. On the contrary, Simon’s flirtation with the concepts of documentary realism, accuracy of text and the archival authority of the museum highlights their limits and fallacies. The employment of the term ‘index’ in the title of her project thus becomes an ironic reference, both to the claimed indexicality of the photographic medium, and to the supposed neutrality of taxonomic forms of archival knowledge. Her pictures are not objective and immediate shots of the sites she visited, and her selection of places and people is arbitrary, at times even disconcerting. As she explains: ‘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 “index” 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.’

Simon’s work offers a critique not just of the political, scientific and institutional apparatuses of control revealed in the images, but also of photography, taxonomic knowledge, journalism and artistic display as quiet instruments of ‘the violence of meaning’, described by Tagg. Her project invokes the absent information, bodies, and stories, proving that photography cannot show everything, the text cannot tell the full story and the museum cannot provide the complete information. It is, first and foremost, an investigation of the politics of showing and looking, of the institutional framing and circulation of meaning, of privileged accessibility and instrumental closure.

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