Friday, August 06, 2010

Taryn Simon Essay Reprint: Photographs That Make the Invisible Visible

Taryn Simon's photographs of contraband were featured last week in the New York Times Magazine, giving me the perfect excuse to reprint an essay I wrote about her book An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar for the Toronto Star.

Taryn Simon is a photographer with the instincts of a journalist who strives to make the invisible visible
Ryan Bigge | Toronto Star | September 30, 2007

In March of 2007 I went on a long-weekend art crawl in New York, organized by Ryerson's School of Image Arts. Partway through my cultural bender, on the fifth floor of the Whitney, I discovered an easy-to-overlook mezzanine, analogous to floor 7 1/2 in Being John Malkovich. There, inside a small, windowless gallery, was a series of photographs by Taryn Simon entitled An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.

The bunker-like atmosphere was a perfect compliment to the surreptitious nature of the subject matter, which included a huge pallet of uncut $100 bills from the U.S. Treasury, and the locker room in the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in Long Island.

The image seen here was also part of the exhibit, and is included in Simon's new book of the same name. At first glance, the drab, flesh-coloured walls and harsh neon lighting of this hallway are banal, even repellent, the sort of tableau that should have remained hidden. The only nice thing to say is that the bland walls make the zing and pop of Thomas Downing's two paintings that much more dramatic. (Downing was a member of an influential 1960s movement of painters known as the Washington Colour School.)

But there is obviously more going on here, or this would be a picture with only 250 words. What you can't see is the accompanying caption, which explains that this is part of the original headquarters building of the CIA, located in Langley, Va. It turns out that spooks like art.

Simon points out in her caption that the CIA invested heavily in cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, including actively promoting abstract expressionism. As Simon writes, "It is speculated that some of the CIA's involvement in the arts was designed to counter Soviet Communism by helping to popularize what it considered pro-American thought and aesthetic sensibilities."

Good teachers are said to make the invisible visible. That is, they find ways of converting abstract concepts into concrete examples so that the light bulb in our head switches on. Simon also makes the invisible visible, but in a more literal manner.

Other images from Hidden include a hibernating black bear, a flask of live HIV, the headquarters of the KKK, a cage on death row, a jury simulation room, and a contraband table at JFK airport filled with 48 hours worth of confiscated foodstuff (including, but not limited to, African cane rats and jackfruit seeds).

Like the mezzanine gallery in the Whitney, the cover of Hidden reinforces the theme of secrecy. Made to resemble a bound Ph.D. dissertation, the book features its title stamped with thin, gold-foil lettering, and the plain grey and black cloth cover offers no hints as to the images sequestered inside.

Although the locations and items in Simon's book are furtive and clandestine, her style of documentation is anything but. As Salman Rushdie writes in the book's introduction, "Simon's is not the customary aesthetic of reportage - the shaky hand-held camera, the grainy monochrome film of the 'real.'"

Instead, her images are "suffused with light, captured with a bright, hyper-realist, high-definition clarity that gives a kind of star status to these hidden worlds." Her captions, meanwhile, are detached, dry journalese. Still, Simon is not a dour tour guide. Her book includes some visual puns, like a Braille edition of Playboy, the only version of the magazine that finally makes true the claim "I only read it for the articles."

At the same time, Simon is not afraid to visit uncomfortable places, such as the University of Tennessee's Forensic Anthropology Research Facility, a 6.5-hectare plot filled with 75 dead bodies (legally obtained) that are used to determine decomposition patterns.

As this hallway photograph would suggest, the images in Hidden require a two-part viewing process. An initial impression is formed through viewing the image, followed by a reappraisal after reading the caption. Unlike many artists, Simon tends to generate shock and surprise through textual revelations rather than through her subject matter. Even the Forensic Anthropology photograph is not lurid or true-crime but almost painterly in composition, taken from a discrete distance, and concealing as much as it shows.

It is only after the viewer has digested both image and caption that the formal aspects of the photograph can be appreciated. Simon's work demonstrates that the 1,000 words contained inside a photograph sometimes require an equal number of explanatory words before the image can make its content seen and heard.

While Simon captures her targets from the viewpoint of an artist, the project required her to think like an investigative journalist. Simon worked methodically to gain access over the four years the project required, with some shoots requiring a year of negotiation. As Rushdie writes, "Her powers of persuasion are at least the equal of her camera skills." Thanks to her patience, we have been granted a backstage pass into alternate worlds, infrastructures and subcultures, all of which were selected by Simon at random.

Rushdie believes that these people, places and things constitute a "phantom world," and professes a mixture of envy and gratitude for being allowed to glimpse them. Given the power and importance of this phantom world, Rushdie calls into question the supremacy of the visible world. Perhaps the real arc of our lives is being plotted in the art-lined corridors of the CIA, rather than in legislatures, town halls and boardrooms.

"Democracy needs visibility, accountability, light," Rushdie argues. "It is in the unseen darkness that unsavoury things huddle and grow.” Hidden and unfamiliar, our collective secrets, like photographs, can only be exposed through the judicious application of light.