Taryn Simon is a camera artist that I admire with trepidation. Her work is challenging and it is brave. It is also disturbing for how it sees America. This is very serious photography at a high level of public ambition. One that is as much to be wary of, as it is to be admired. In a word: significant.
I am intrigued with the echoes operating out of Taryn Simon’s photo-essay An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar. Not through any explicit dialect but via her Ultra-American twang. I enjoy Taryn’s visual affirmation of America’s ‘homeliness’. Her images share America’s story with images that we have never encountered before. Their carefully chosen titles determine how we react. Without the titles, we can overlook this artist’s intent.
Most of her photograph’s titles are seemingly banal. They infect us with an unknown America – Live HIV, Playboy – Braille Edition, Death Row Outdoor Recreational Facility, "The Cage". Taryn’s project is additive and it is also sequential. Any photograph from the series, American Index, comes across as evidence at some trial caused by the location. When juxtaposed with other images, they mix a lethal cocktail.
Here is an artist who disrupts how we comprehend America by revealing places we not only have never visited; we have never even imagined existed. She couples her forensic research with the allure of America. Her images render that nation as if it is seen through a perverse public mirror.
Taryn utilises extensive research for both the identification and background of her subjects. She works much like a Pinkerton detective, selecting subjects never encountered by the public. None of her images exist in a ‘to be expected’ category. Rather, they scare us with their take on ugliness. Does America actually look good here? No, but does a country’s ‘good looks’ really matter?
OK - I said this already but I must emphasise it again. Taryn’s project shows us what we have never seen. She does not want us to react to her images with a wimpy response but through our gut. The Index reports on the uncanny. There is a hook to these images, the titles capture one and force you into becoming an involuntary voyeur.
Robert Frank’s The Americans (1958) remains the greatest modern photo-essay about what being ‘American’ means. In this remarkable book, Roberts includes the essay which he commissioned from Jack Kerouac. Jack who later sent the photographer a card stating, “That photo you sent me of a guy looking over his cow on the Platte River is to me a photo of a man recognising his own mind’s existence, no matter what.”
Taryn Simon mirrors Robert Frank’s approach to the eerie, while she waits for America to reveal itself to us as filled with strange places. Her Index is an anatomy of America’s contemporary melancholy. It reports on the underknown. Oddity is as present in her images as it is in Poe’s tales of the mysteriously woebegone. With Index, an abject eye ponders what is disconsolate. Reality’s truths become plain creepy. Alienation walks away from the beautiful and cherishes the wretched.
Taryn’s art reminds me how pervasive our need is for cultural signposts. How to get to where we inhabit via signs pointing to the unseen, the unvisited, to places where we know nothing. We need signs to see where we are going in America. Yet, understanding signs is a separate matter. Secrecy is always close by in Taryn’s Index.
Taryn has an exceptional website: