Behind Closed Doors

Artist and TEDGlobal speaker Taryn Simon talks about her creative process and the work behind her photographs.

Larry Mayes

Scene of arrest, The Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana
Police found Mayes hiding beneath a mattress in this room.

Served 18.5 years of an 80-year sentence for rape, robbery, and unlawful deviate conduct

From The Innocents, © 2003 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

 

Taryn Simon finds ways to enter America’s hidden landscapes by using her large-format camera as a passport. She reveals the country’s virtually invisible and often physically inaccessible spaces through her stunning images. In 2002, her book The Innocents captured portraits of wrongly accused death-row inmates who were exonerated by DNA testing, while also examining photography’s role in the investigative process. In her latest work, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, Simon takes us inside some of the most secretive places in the US.

How do you negotiate access to certain locations?

Piles and piles of emails (many unanswered), letters, phone calls, frustrations. There’s no formula that governs the approach — my method is reactive and depends on the recipient’s response and interest.

You have said in the past that all of your photos are collaborative — with your subjects, the people working inside the facilities you get access to, and the location — and also that the “agreement” you have with these people and places is an important part of your photography. Can you elaborate on this?

In An American Index, the invisible process — days, months, even years finding a way into these sites — was an integral part of the work’s conceptual intentions. I wanted to see how far I could get without sneaking, as an individual outside of any corporate or media structure. I wanted to see how far I could penetrate with permission and acceptance.

How do you interpret the creative process? Do you think there’s a balance of inspiration and hard work, or is it all hard work?

The choices I make usually involve a revelatory moment — both in the taking of an image and the identifying of subject matter. That said, these moments are literally moments surrounded by hard work.

Using a large-format camera is a very deliberate process — and there’s also no way to hide the fact that you’re photographing something or someone. Is this important to you?

Yes. The way in which I photograph (with a large-format camera and an elaborate lighting setup) is a declaration of my presence. There are no caught images. It follows a negotiation that is evident to the viewer in its final form, albeit without the specifics of that negotiation.

Have you ever seen an image or moment and wished you had a camera with you to capture that moment?

Very rarely. I see things all the time that trigger research or give me a visual idea to consider and construct. For me, the camera is not for capturing a moment — it’s the final step atop a layered, calculated process.

How do you involve the people you photograph after you capture the image, if at all?

I have many close friends from The Innocents. And from An American Index, very few.

What criteria do you look for when you approach new locations, people, or things to photograph (I’m not so much referring to An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar as I am to any new project)?

I’m consistently at a loss for words describing my wants. That said, I know it with certainty when I find them. It’s usually disorienting, with twists and unclear edges.

Why did you choose photography as a storytelling medium?

It’s something I’ve been doing since I was very young. Both my grandfather and father are photographers. Beyond a natural leaning, I like teetering between truth and fiction. It matches my conceptual interests.

 

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility, Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site,
US Department of Energy, Southeastern Washington State

Submerged in a pool of water at Hanford Site are 1,936 stainless-steel nuclear-waste capsules containing cesium and strontium. Combined, they contain over 120 million curies of radioactivity. It is estimated to be the most curies under one roof in the United States. The blue glow is created by the Cherenkov Effect, which describes the electromagnetic radiation emitted when a charged particle, giving off energy, moves faster than light through a transparent medium. The temperatures of the capsules are as high as 330 degrees Fahrenheit. The pool of water serves as a shield against radiation; a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds. Hanford is among the most contaminated sites in the United States.

From An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, © 2007 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gogosian Gallery/Steidl.

 

Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan

This cryopreservation unit holds the bodies of Rhea and Elaine Ettinger, the mother and first wife of cryonics pioneer, Robert Ettinger. Robert, author of The Prospect of Immortality and Man Into Superman is still alive.

The Cryonics Institute offers cryostasis (freezing) services for individuals and pets upon death. Cryostasis is practiced with the hope that lives will ultimately be extended through future developments in science, technology, and medicine. When, and if, these developments occur, Institute members hope to awaken to an extended life in good health, free from disease or the aging process. Cryostasis must begin immediately upon legal death. A person or pet is infused with ice-preventive substances and quickly cooled to a temperature where physical decay virtually stops. The Cryonics Institute charges $28,000 for cryostasis if it is planned well in advance of legal death and $35,000 on shorter notice.

From An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, © 2007 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gogosian Gallery/Steidl.

 

White Tiger (Kenny), Selective Inbreeding, Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Foundation, Eureka Springs, Arkansas

In the United States, all living white tigers are the result of selective inbreeding to artificially create the genetic conditions that lead to white fur, ice-blue eyes, and a pink nose. Kenny was born to a breeder in Bentonville, Arkansas, on February 3, 1999. As a result of inbreeding, Kenny is mentally retarded and has significant physical limitations. Due to his deep-set nose, he has difficulty breathing and closing his jaw, and his teeth are severely malformed. He limps from abnormal bone structure in his forearms. The three other tigers in Kenny’s litter are not considered to be quality white tigers either as they are yellow-coated, cross-eyed, and knock-kneed.

From An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, © 2007 Taryn Simon. Courtesy Gogosian Gallery/Steidl.

 

Taryn Simon is a photographer. Her work is part of the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), Tate Modern (London), and the Centre Pompidou (Paris), among others. She was a TEDGlobal speaker.

The Substance of Things Not Seen

Issue 11

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