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At arm's length

Brown University's "250th Alumni Exhibition Park 2"
By GREG COOK  |  May 7, 2014

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OBJECTIFICATION Simon's 'Hymenoplasty, Cosmetic Surgery, P.A., For Lauderdale, Florida.'

P hotographer Taryn Simon gets amazing access to places, from the art-decorated lobby of a CIA building to the “largest, intact, preserved coastal temperate rain forest in the world” at Olympic National Park to a glowing Department of Energy storage facility for lethally radioactive cesium and strontium.

In these photos from the 1997 Brown grad’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar — on view in a three-artist survey that serves as part two of “Brown University 250th Anniversary Alumni Exhibitions” at the David Winton Bell Gallery (64 College St, Providence, through May 25) — she pursues a tour of contemporary American mythology. Underlying some of her photos of a model of Star Wars’ Death Star of a pile of animals and plants seized from international arrivals at New York’s JFK airport is a provocative consideration of the workings of power — military, economic, sexual.

The images themselves, though, are handsome and polished, but dull. She’s recognized by top museum shows and New York Times Magazine features as one of the standout documentary art photographers of her generation. So what’s going on here?

Simon’s breakout work a decade ago was The Innocents, portraits of men wrongly sentenced to death or life imprisonment whose convictions were overturned by DNA evidence. It was a powerful, timely subject with a sharp framing device — she posed each man at a site related to the alleged crime. But the portraits themselves feel artificial and Simon seems disconnected from the men.

This distance comes to the fore in her later projects. A photo at Brown shows transatlantic fiber-optic communication cables emerging from the sea as some red and orange lines running up the wall of an empty-seeming New Jersey room. It takes an astonishing engineering project and reduces it to its most mundane.

Another image depicts an operating room with a woman — well, mostly her spread legs — lying in the middle. A sign explains that she’s a 21-year-old American resident of Palestinian descent who has gone to a Florida plastic surgeon to receive a hymenoplasty to fool a future husband into thinking she is a virgin. What a subject! But the woman has been turned into a symbol, an object, just a pair of disembodied legs.

Simon is a conceptually-driven stylist. One can trace this way of working back to photographer August Sander’s specimen-like People of the 20th Century portraits that he began recording around 1911, and Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographic studies of the varieties of cooling towers, grain elevators, and other industrial architecture that they began around 1959. They photographed similar designs from similar head-on angles, and presented them in grids like specimens pinned to the wall to study the variations within a species.

Simon’s work also recalls Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s 1977 project Evidence, which culled bland documentary photos of models, machines, and physical demonstrations from corporate, government, and educational archives. These images took on a new surreal life when removed their native context and disconnected from explanations. But tracing fine art precedents is only part of the story. The rise of the deadpan documentary style that Simon pursues coincides with the decline in the 1960s of Life magazine and other publications that paid well for in-depth humanist photojournalism and the rise instead of fashion (see the luxury and deadpan expressions) and corporate photography (everything flatly posed) as the most profitable ways to make a living doing photography. Maybe the generational stylistic shift is mainly about paychecks.

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