Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

by Aaron Schuman

As a child, Taryn Simon was surrounded by photographs which 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 to relive a recent wedding, a birthday party, or a Disneyworld vacation, the Simon's slideshows were remarkably different. While working for the State Department, Simon's father was stationed in the USSR during the Cold War, in Bangkok during the Vietnam War, and subsequently travelled to Afghanistan, Iran and Israel on government business, always photographing his trips extensively. In a time when most Americans were barely aware of the world beyond their country's borders, Simon was being fed first-hand accounts from some of the most shadowy international posts in contemporary American history.

Describing herself as "a bit of a hippie kid", Simon initially pursued environmental sciences when she began at Brown University in 1993, but quickly transferred to a degree in art semiotics, simultaneously taking photography classes at the neighboring Rhode Island School Design. By the time she had graduated, she was a freelance photographer for publications such as The New York Times, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, travelling as far as the Caucasus to photograph injured Chechen rebels, and to Cuba to document Castro and the Palace of the Revolution.

Despite her remarkable success, Simon's ambitions drove her to pursue work that might make a more lasting impression than conventional photojournalism - "Something that wouldn't end up in the garbage a week later," as she describes it. In 2001 she applied for a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant that has generously sponsored some of the greatest photographic projects ever made, by the likes of Walker Evans, Lee Friedlander, Diane Arbus, Joel Sternfeld, Mitch Epstein, and Robert Frank. "My thesis was very tight, but I never thought that I'd get it," she explains. Much to her own surprise, she did, and immediately committed herself entirely to her own work.

The resulting portfolio, The Innocents, came about through collaboration with The Innocents Project, an organization that seeks to exonerate American inmates who have been wrongfully convicted. In the photographs, Simon took a rather frank but fascinating approach, making formal portraits of each of the "innocents" in locations that were vital to the legal cases 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 images highlight the malevolent role that photography can play in the manipulation and falsification of facts. As Simon 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... [Pjhotography's ambiguity, beautiful in one context, can be devastating in another."

Simon's most recent publication, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, is an incredibly diverse and astounding tome, and so far is the twenty-first century's finest response to a longstanding tradition within American photography. Robert Frank describes this tradition in his own Guggenheim application as, "the making of a broad, voluminous picture record of things American, past and present." Included in Frank's 1954 pitch for what eventually became The Americans is a catalogue of his potential subject-matter: "a town at night, a parking lot, a supermarket, a highway, the man who owns three cars and the man who owns none. advertising, neon lights, the faces of the leaders and the faces of the followers, gas tanks and post offices and backyards." Simon's American Index presents a 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, 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 Evans's American Photographs - Simon chose to symbolize the current incarnation of the country precisely through that which is official, exceptional, hidden and often freakishly extraordinary. "It's my response to a moment when America is looking to understand things outside of its borders. I wanted to do the same thing but within American borders. But the material is also referred to as 'unfamiliar' because I can't stand photography that pretends to understand its subject. I always try to create this distance whereby the viewer can see that, like them, I'm not in the know; I'm at a distance too."Like the medium of photography itself, there's something remarkably seductive about the promise of transparency offered by Simon's Index. But such superficial notions of clarity are quickly compromised once one realises that, despite having vicariously been granted access to previously alien environs, one still knows little more than 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 is actually crumbling and moldy. That's reality, but seeing it isn't going to cure anything. It's only going to create further awareness of the mould." Again, describing Walker Evans's American Photographs in 1938, Lincoln Kirstein poetically proclaimed, "Here are the records of the age before an imminent collapse. [Thesej 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 certainly does seem familiar.