Double Review: Taryn Simon’s ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ and ‘Birds of the West Indies’

Reviewed by Caroline Waight


Published by Hatje Cantz , 2012 ; 2013   |   151,440 pages

The notion that the camera is a neutral eye is both long discredited and strangely persistent. When Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s earliest pioneers, announced his invention of “photogenic drawing” in 1839, he declared its autonomy in no uncertain terms: “it is not the artist who makes the picture,” he wrote in London’s Literary Gazette, “but the picture which makes itself.” Specially-prepared paper, treated with salt and silver nitrate, is placed behind a lens, light falls through, and an identical copy of reality emerges like a miracle on its surface.

Contemporary film photography is founded on essentially the same technology, but its philosophical and artistic underpinnings are very different: few critics today would contend that an image ‘makes itself’, and we are often as interested in the subject behind the camera as the one in front of it. Yet, even today, the photograph, more than the painting or the drawing, retains an aura of distance. It is fixed, detached, clinical. We document things with pictures, and those documents become records and archives. Taryn Simon returns to this photographic mode again and again in her work. She uses a large-format 4×5 camera, a set-up that requires a good deal of heavy equipment, and her images — in the case of An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, approximately seventy photographs of normally unseen places and objects in America — are exactingly considered. Most are dark (both literally and figuratively), their inhabitants selectively lit by spotlights as if on stage. They display a posed, deliberate, self-conscious artificiality. Simon’s detached, almost scientific gaze is reinforced by the accompanying text, which describes and contextualises the images in a precise and matter-of-fact manner. The title, even the plain, thesis-style binding, underscore the book’s academic, classificatory aesthetic.

But An American Index is a strange taxonomy. The images are not organised into any particular order, though groupings and commonalities (beyond the fact that they are all places normally invisible to the public eye) do emerge. Public health, safety, freedom and privacy are prominent themes, as are paranoia, cruelty, the entanglement of art and politics, and borders and crossings of all kinds, from trans-Atlantic telecommunications cables to illegal immigrants. There is a morbid preoccupation with disease and disaster, and above all a permeating curiosity about human activity, ranging from the bizarre (Simon notes that the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan houses forty-four legally dead pets) to the strangely banal (we discover that the ‘Imperial Office of the World Knights of the Klu Klux Klan’ is a beige-carpeted living room). The studiously neutral tone even occasionally reads as comical — Simon tells us the fictional history of the Death Star in the Star Wars universe, for example, with the same gravity that she accords everything else.

An American Index is simultaneously almost aggressively non-committal and stagily self-aware. It gives us access, not answers. Yet despite Simon’s best efforts not to preach to us, and her avoidance of the familiar clichés of grainy realism, An American Index inevitably takes on the nature of a political commentary. The effect of the images is cumulative, and as one reads through the book a narrative, albeit a disjointed, non-linear one, makes itself felt. Despite all the barriers thrown up between camera and subject — the artificiality, the matter-of-fact text, the academic trappings — we cannot remain disengaged.

Birds of the West Indies, Simon’s most recent work, is constructed along similar lines, but here her focus is narrowed. The book takes its initially misleading title from a 1936 taxonomy of the various species of bird found in the Caribbean by the well-respected ornithologist and unlikely source of literary inspiration James Bond (1900 – 1989), after whom Ian Fleming’s famous fictional spy is named. Like An American Index, and like its earlier namesake, Simon’s Birds of the West Indies is also a compendium, but its subject is James Bond (this time 007)’s world. It is an exhaustive list of Bond’s cars, weapons and women, each photographed alone and neatly labeled with the title and year of the film in which it or she appeared.

In terms of structure, then, Birds of the West Indies is similar to An American Index, but the strategy of studied neutrality that worked to such disconcerting effect in the earlier book is subverted here. The ‘Bond girls’ are deliberately treated in much the same way as the inanimate objects (as, some would argue, they are in the films), but whereas most of An American Index’s human subjects are passive, functioning as extensions of their environment, the women in Birds of the West Indies are not. The actresses are all photographed against the same plain backdrop, but were allowed to choose their clothes and pose. They engage with, even challenge, the camera; Simon looks at her subjects, and they look back. One might even argue that the same goes for the photographs of cars and gadgets: defamiliarised as they are, they immediately evoke a web of memories from the films, defying the rigid, linear format of the book.

Both books are gorgeously designed and presented, and Simon’s photographs reward contemplation. They are challenging, provocative and occasionally frustrating, but always beautiful and intriguing. Her work resists definitive interpretation, preferring instead to mirror the reader’s own responses and ideas: as she has commented in the context of a different work, ‘There is no end result. There is only disorientation or the unknown. It’s an equation that folds out on itself again and again. X+Y does not equal something. It doesn’t equal infinity either. It just mutates into another question.’

Originally from the UK, Caroline Waight has studied at Cambridge, Oxford and Cornell Universities. Her work focuses on music in the early twentieth century.

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