Milwaukee

Taryn Simon, Charles Irvin Fain, scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melba, Idaho, served 18 years of a death sentence for murder, rape and kidnapping, 2002, color photograph, 48 x 62". From the series “The Innocents,” 2002.

Taryn Simon, Charles Irvin Fain, scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melba, Idaho, served 18 years of a death sentence for murder, rape and kidnapping, 2002, color photograph, 48 x 62". From the series “The Innocents,” 2002.

Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon, Charles Irvin Fain, scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melba, Idaho, served 18 years of a death sentence for murder, rape and kidnapping, 2002, color photograph, 48 x 62". From the series “The Innocents,” 2002.

Taryn Simon’s exhibition at the architecturally distinguished Milwaukee Art Museum offered up a generous and inquisitive photographic archive that spanned ten years and three distinct projects: “The Innocents,” 2002, portraits of people wrongfully convicted of violent crimes; “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” 2007, images of sites and holdings generally inaccessible to the public; and “Contraband,” 2010, a series that documents, with clinical precision, items seized over a given week from airline passengers entering the United States. Depending on her subject matter, Simon employs different photographic techniques, ranging from formal studio conventions to documentary methods to a more prominent vernacular or de-skilled aesthetic. Combined with expository writings and elaborate descriptive titles that contextualize each image, Simon’s pictorial investigations are as rich in sociological intrigue as they are in truth value.

This is particularly true of her “Innocents” series; in one print, Simon presents a white middle-aged man at night, standing, staring back at the viewer from between two illuminated headlights. The title of the work says it all: Charles Irvin Fain, scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melba, Idaho, served 18 years of a death sentence for murder, rape, and kidnapping. In another large-format chromogenic print, the subject is identified as Larry Mayes, re-creating the setting of his arrest. Lying belly down, he looks out from between two soiled mattresses stacked on the floor of a now abandoned hotel room listed in the title as the Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. After serving eighteen-and-a-half years for rape, robbery, and unlawful deviant conduct, this man seems as dejected and exhausted as his sordid surroundings. In works such as these, Simon sets the stage for what could be a powerful indictment of our justice system, revealing through each of the eleven “Innocents” included in this show the toll wrongful incarceration inflicts on the individual.

The theatrical and editorial liberties Simon took while composing “The Innocents” were absent, however, in the stark, objectively composed images that constituted “Contraband.” To procure the illegal, prohibited, pirated, or counterfeit items featured in this series—tobacco products, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, onions, and deer parts (including tongue, penis, antlers, and blood)—Simon remained at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport for five days straight (taking only a few late-night naps) and documented all goods that were confiscated entering the country within that period. Photographing these objects against a neutral background, Simon organized the resultant 6 1/4 x 6 1/4–inch ink-jet prints into categories and then set each grouping within Plexiglas box frames so that they appeared like objects floating in petri dishes. In turn, the gallery walls of the MAM were effectively transformed into a reference chart of American contraband—or, taken another way, into an artwork partially authored by the United States Department of Homeland Security. In this, Simon literalizes Susan Sontag’s well-noted proposition that “to photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed.”

The third body of work, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” was also ripe with curious research, yet in this series Simon gave equal weight to language and image alike. At times this seemed an overwrought reminder that even the documentary photograph lacks certitude, as each of the nineteen images shown was accompanied by a full explanatory paragraph. However, the information disclosed did indeed “make” the image. For instance, a seemingly random grid of black dots exuding an exquisite blue glow is in fact, so the text explains, a group of nuclear-waste capsules suspended in water at a storage site in Washington State, and the blue light, we learn, is a product of the Cherenkov effect. The text even elucidates unseen elements, in this case noting that the air pictured is so toxic that “a human standing one foot from an unshielded capsule would receive a lethal dose of radiation in less than 10 seconds.” Such incongruent pairings of language and image (also applied to psychologically stirring items such as a vial of HIV-infected cells and a cryopreservation unit) push the idea of “abstraction” beyond the normal painterly concerns of color relations and the spectrum of representation from of figure to ground. In Simon’s world, things are not what they at first appear, but then the photographer herself is much more than a photo-documentarian.

Michelle Grabner