A vision of the world through the lens of Taryn Simon: probing the uncertainty of memory and truth
This interview was originally broadcast in 2013.
The work of photographer and conceptual artist Taryn Simon has been described by critics as both terrifying and brilliant.
Mixing camerawork, writing, graphic design and performance art, her complex and ambitious projects raise questions about the nature of truth, the reliability of memory and the struggle between order and chaos. Simon's breakout work looked at Americans who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death, often due to the misuse of photographic evidence.
The resultant book, The Innocents, was published to great acclaim in 2003.
One of her most successful projects, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, took Simon around the world to photograph blood relatives. Featuring a consistent neutral backdrop, it explores ideas about family, individuality and fate, while also highlighting inequalities around land ownership and gender roles.
Simon's solo exhibitions have toured major museums. In September 2021, The Color of a Flea's Eye: The Picture Collection, created from the famous holdings of images at the New York Public Library, will open there. It's also a book, as are most of her major projects.
Simon spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from the CBC's New York studio in 2013.
A family history
"My grandfather and my father were both avid photographers. But it's something that confounds the conventional definition of photography: it was always about a photograph in conjunction with data collection.
My grandfather was interested in the stars, minerals, rocks, flowers and the natural world with great specificity. He built telescopes and ground glass for the lenses of those telescopes. For him, it was always about collecting information and trying to understand things that are beyond understanding.
I was always raised with this view of the world, through images and text — and the disconnects and connections between the two.
"My father also functioned in a similar form with this hobby — but it was more obsessive than a hobby. He travelled throughout the world working for the government, but also produced tons of photographs in quite remote and distant areas. He would come back with these fantastical stories associated with them all.
"I was always raised with this view of the world, through images and text — and the disconnects and connections between the two."
My life in photography
"When I was younger, for financial and physical reasons, I couldn't go on all these travels with my father. I had no access to the broader world, but I got this incredible education about it through his images. It was, in a way, kind of like the early panoramas — where you would go and travel, but not. It was how I got my understanding of distant cultures, politics and religion, and a way of constructing fantasies as well. It was something that I later applied to my own work.
"I carry that forward, this relationship between the image and text — and how one can influence the other. My father's narrative could completely influence my understanding of the space I was looking at — and it's a very specific view of that.
I carry that forward, this relationship between the image and text — and how one can influence the other.
"I went through every phase that one does in the beginning of photography. So it was explorations in black and white, and a lot of time developing my own negatives, printing, family portraits and self-portraiture. I was primarily studying the technical side, playing around with different ways of developing, printing, negative treatment and exposures. I was just learning.
"It became a permanent truth. I'm always interested in that."
Chaotic stories of survival
"In my work, certainly in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, the narratives are often chaotic stories of survival, and very tragic. There's this hunger for images associated with narratives like that — that feeds on these emotional triggers that we want to satisfy.
"I always photograph from what's sometimes seen as an irritating distance, where it can almost seem cold. I insist on maintaining that position in the way in which I photograph all the individuals in my work.
"I'm taking a position of saying, 'I don't know.' I'm not claiming to have any deeper access into what their experiences are than the audience themselves.
I always photograph from what's sometimes seen as an irritating distance, where it can almost seem cold.
"I am, therefore, creating a more awkward engagement for the audience when they're confronted with these images."
Taryn Simon's comments have been edited for length and clarity.