Taryn Simon, Foiling the Truth: The Effects of the Real and Fictional in Documentary Photography – Mirna Boyadjian

[Fall 2012]

Howard Becker wrote an essay called “Do Photographs Tell the Truth?” in 1986, and the question still seems pertinent. Although today we admit that the photographic image constitutes a (re)construction of the world and not a reproduction of reality, a certain legalistic conception of photographs tends to be maintained.1 Despite formatting, storyboarding, or fictionalization, the photographic surface (like the filmic image), indissociable from how it is mechanically produced, raises the idea that the photograph offers a sort of “truth” of things. Are we, as Jacques Rancière suggests, in an age in which “writing History and writing histories arise from a single regime of truth”2 – in which reality and fiction intertwine within a single space, which we apprehend according to similar knowledge criteria? The photographic practice of New York artist Taryn Simon3 in fact consists of probing, even foiling, the links between reality and its image through both thematic registers and formal strategies. Last fall, the Milwaukee Art Museum presented the exhibition “Taryn Simon: Photographs and Texts,” featuring three recent photographic series: The Innocents (2003), An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), and Contraband (2010). By choosing to accentuate Simon’s arrangements of texts and images, the exhibition curator, Lisa Hostetler, recognized the importance of this mechanism in undermining viewers’ perception and disorienting their interpretation.

Twelve of the fifty portraits in the series The Innocents occupied one of the interconnecting rooms in the gallery. Following a commission executed for the New York Times in 2000 on the release of falsely imprisoned persons, Simon focused on the role played by the photographer in criminal investigations. She then travelled through the United States meeting men and women whose incarceration had been based on erroneous identification attributed to a photograph or an eyewitness. Convicted of robbery, kidnapping, murder, or rape, these individuals were all falsely imprisoned, some for eighteen years, before being exonerated by dna testing.4 At first glance, the large format of the prints (117 x 150 cm) and the obviously elaborate composition attract us. Only when we read the labels accompanying each photograph, which tersely reveal the identity of the individual, the location, and the sentence served, are we plunged into a new, tragic world, in which we feel the empty desolation in the eyes of the subjects. They are in the places that sealed their fate: the scene of the crime, the alibi, the arrest, or the identification. In Simon’s view, this mise en scène reinforces the ambiguity of the relationships between reality and fiction.5

Aside from the photographs, the project includes a publication, which, in this case, Hostetler’s exhibition design follows. The book presents the photographs with texts that, on the one hand, explain the nature of the crime and the context of the arrest, and, on the other hand, quote the person’s testimony. These writings further affect the reception of the images, since they accentuate the reality effect of the photographic construction. Thus, the artist is able not only to show the faults in the American legal system but to transmit the resulting injustice. In this sense, it would have been enriching to directly consult the book, which was displayed, in a very debatable manner, in a covered display case.

Hung in the second room were eighteen photographs from the series An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, made over a four-year period. Like an archaeologist, Simon excavated the American social space searching for sites, spaces, objects, and practices not commonly accessible or simply not well known to the general public. Although these images seem, at first glance, discordant due to the figurative diversity, the accompanying texts, with unusually small typography, force us to reduce our field of vision to the point that we no longer see the image, stating an implacable logic. The explanatory labels reactivate the identity of these “places,” which would otherwise remain anonymous, though interesting from an aesthetic point of view. For example, the image of a body deteriorating in the middle of a wooded area enveloped in dawn light seems tragic, until we read that it is located in a medical and legal anthropological research site at the University of Tennessee. Mixed with the theatrical effect of the image is a reality effect through which we discover something unprecedented. As we make these discoveries, the American imagination is recomposed on the grid of degrees of disenchantment.

Inspired by her first visit to the warehouse for objects confiscated at American customs at John F Kennedy Airport in New York to take pictures for the series An American Index, Simon undertook the project Contraband. With her team, the artist camped out on the site 16–20 November 2009 intending to inventory items that had been banned from entry to the United States because they were deemed illegal or dangerous. Xanax, alcohol, animal cadavers, firearms, exotic fruits, and deer tongues were among the categories within which the 1,075 shots in the series were placed. The images are arranged in translucent cases in a categorized structure. The central placement of the items, photographed against a neutral background, in the images and the careful – almost advertising-like – presentation emphasize both their strangeness and their banality. At the end of each grouping is a brief description of the nature of the product, its provenance, and the reason for its proscription. More than a simple list of objects, this collection reveals the importance of transborder flows in the era of what Marc Augé calls supermodernity and shows, at the same time, what the United States is afraid to allow onto its territory.

By the end of our visit, we have certainly been impressed with the beauty of the images that Simon has produced, but even more with the revelations resulting from the complex relationship between the photographs with a calculated aesthetic and the texts with a plain, impersonal style. In fact, the formal layout becomes subversive as it deconstructs what we believe we are seeing and constructs what we should see. The contextualization that Simon proposes through written intervention attests to the insufficiency of the photographic image to “express” the world and reveals its fictive potential. Paradoxically, the written material amplifies the reality effect of the fictionalized image by conferring upon it a thickness, without, however, defining the imaginary. In this case, the question that arises is perhaps no longer whether the photograph tells the truth, but how we build our knowledge of the world through the image. How do we build photographic truth?
Translated by Käthe Roth

1 Régis Durand and Paul Ardenne, Images-mondes : de l’événement au documentaire (Paris: Monografik éditions), p. 11.
2 Jacques Rancière, Le partage du sensible (Paris: La Fabrique éditions), p. 61 (our translation).
3 The artist’s Web site is http://tarynsimon.com/
4 As Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck write in the introduction to The Innocents, the process leading to dna testing on individuals already found guilty is difficult – even impossible in some states. Significantly, today identifications must correspond to the results of dna tests.
5 Taryn Simon, The Innocents (New York: Umbrage Editions, 2003), pp. 6–7.

Mirna Boyadjian is currently studying for a master’s degree in art history at the Université du Québec à Montréal; her subject is the work of New York artist Taryn Simon. She also works at the Observatoire de l’imaginaire contemporain (OIC).

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