« Tips for Finding '1000 True Fans' | Main | Out and About with a 'Bent and a Box »

Thursday, 24 September 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Superb, a very interesting talk. I saw an exhibition of the 'Hidden' photographs at 'The Photographers Gallery' in London a couple of years ago.

I would have given HER the MacArthur genius award. Thanks for the post.

Wonderfully significant post. I like how it's simultaneously an exploration of the nature and character of photography itself, as well as illustrating an excellent use of photography as a tool for cultural archeology. Thanks Mike!

Great lecture, hopefully I picked up the last copy from Amazon as shown. By the way, the Danny Lyon book I picked up (from your reference) is superb.

She is the Nigella Lawson of Photography.

Thank you for pointing out Taryn's TED presentation, Mike. I'm sure I would have missed it. I certainly salute Taryn's dedication.

While the subjects of Taryn's lens are certainly interesting it would be more fascinating to see a documentary of how this attractive, but clearly very focused and clever, young lady manages to wheedle her way in to see such private parts. I'm betting that Michael Moore would never be invited to snap a hymen restoration patient.

(I'll leave my thoughts right there.)

Does the hymen restoration photo stand as a photo? Or does it need the commentary?

Having grown up in (an ever shrinking) secular America, the idea of "hymen restoration" is pretty remote. The first thing I thought of when I saw that photo was "an abortion".

But when you think about it, the only reason my mind first hit on "an abortion" is because American Christian fundamentalists have made it a political issue. And the ultimate goal of Christian fundamentalism in America is similar to the ultimate goal of Hamas, a theocracy.

So I came full circle. Then I remembered when I was in junior high school. I was reading about the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in Time Magazine and I recalled there being a virginity test. I distinctly remember thinking "that's barbaric."

Mike, I appreciate you posting this stuff. Talk about highs and lows. First we have the incredible Lynsey Addario. But I have to say that I am missing it with Taryn Simon. First, she is a poor speaker. Second, her pictures were not interesting. Contrasted with Lynsey Addario's pictures these were bland and uninteresting. And finally, taking the wrongly accused back to the scene of the crime they were convicted of but did not commit was down right creepy and even exploitive. It made me mad. Can I get back that 17 minutes?


many thanks for posting this. I hadn't heard of Taryn Simon before. While in their form and composition rather straightforward, hers are the most interesting photographs I have seen in a long time.

Sorry but in Spain this kind of photography wins a lot of awards and decorate cool walls to much words and writers etc quotes and when the web begin with the exhibition links bad bad in a few words poo photography.

Fascinating talk, and great dedication.

I must say Ken Tanaka's comment is for once in rather poor taste.

That's an articulate and sly presentation, very interesting. I guess to do what she does, you would have to be verbally convincing; not everybody is, however sincere. Ken Tanaka: curious about the "but" in "attractive but... focused and clever". Where did that come from?

Just about the most interesting talk I've ever heard from a photographer, and - yes - too short at 17 minutes.

What about this "little" video on time-lapse photography on TED?

Amazing video, especially the second part. While the U. S. justice system is better than most in the world, her examples point to one of its major flaws - the weight given to "eyewitness" testimony. I once had a rather animated online discussion with someone about photographic truth. "The camera never lies", he said. Well, technically that might be true. But context, and what we already believe to be the "truth", can lead to the kinds of results she illustrates so well.

That was an amazing video and worth every minute spent watching. I often wonder if photos should stand completely with out words. I think that Taryn shows how adding text/speaking can greatly add to the value of a photograph.

Excellent lecture, and she is very beautiful to boot.

Gee, I would watch her recite the NYC telephone directory for an hour. I admit that I only clicked the link because her looks struck me. And, coming to think of it, her look is--very focused indeed. (Does that put me in the bad taste category? Why is everyone picking on Ken --I keep looking for the tasteless bits, but fail to see them. Must've been the "private parts" phrase...)

But, I hasten to add, I found what she had to say and what she presented certainly merited my time spent. Just on the strange title "Distortion is a Constant" (another '70s pop relic, maybe?) by itself, let alone coupled with a Michael Moore image, I never would have gone looking.

Very interesting. One correction--Ron Williamson had not just been drafted, but had played in the minors for a number of years and was no longer on a team.

Gee...I had no idea my remarks could be construed as offensive. At worst, I expected a crack about lame humor. [shrug]

@ richardplondon: "...curious about the "but" in "attractive but... focused and clever". Where did that come from?"

Ha. Certainly that "but" did not come from sexist condescension. Actually quite the opposite; it's a pure derivative of simple matters-of-fact. Women, in general, can gain far more access to almost anyplace than most men. We men are hampered in such tasks by our testosterone. "Lemme in there!" doesn't work well against mostly male-guarded privates. Womens typical softer approach of "I need to be in there." is far more effective.

So the "but" comes from the fact that men tend to sadly underestimate attractive women. Two hundred more years of gender equality campaigns won't change that, either.

I'm not a Taryn Simon fan. Ken wrote: "it would be more fascinating to see a documentary of how this attractive, but clearly very focused and clever, young lady manages to wheedle her way in to see such private parts." My family can attest that one way she "manages" is through lying. In our case, it was to someone who was ill and medicated. Taryn Simon can go to blazes.

Ron Williamson's story is the basis of John Grisham's only non-fiction book "The Innocent Man". He died a couple of years after being released.

I don't understamd the criticism of Ken's comment either. It seems OK to me.

I liked the presentation, and I am impressed with anyone who actually completes a project or produces something. But I didn't think the photography itself was that impressive. I must admit I started to wonder why, at such a young age, did Ms. Simon start winning awards? Why is she giving talks and how did she attract an audience? In other words how did she garner her success and notoriety? Is she that talented and I am missing something? Is she a talented self promoter? Is she wealthy? Is it that she knows someone or hangs out in certain circles?

I've been doing a lot of reading recently about what makes one business succeed while another similar business fails or what makes one individual succeed where others fail. Unfortunately, in the case of individual success, it appears that who you know and how much money you have and how good-looking you are are often factors in individual success stories. It is much more difficult to determine why one business succeeds while a similar one fails. Luck is certainly involved as well.

Some may take offense at my curiosity about success in general, and Ms. Simons success in particular, but I am just being honest about what I was thinking about as I watched her presentation.

So is Taryn Simon a photogrpher first and social commentator second or visa versa? I find myself thinking she has an agenda which interferes with her work. Nothing wrong with having a point of view, just with not sharing it. ch

Looking forward to savoring this when I have the proper downtime. But after examining The Innocents, it's clear that her interests lie not in photography, but in the human condition. That said, many "artists" employ photography almost as an afterthought of the artistic process, Ms. Simon however, manages to incorporate it into a process that not only further defines her subject matter, but also further defines the role of photography itself.

Been clicking back here repeatedly this evening to see which way reader's comments were swinging... but kept getting the "Server Too Busy" message! Congratulations ;~)

@ Charlie H: You pose a provocative question that's far broader than this article but worthy of taking up at some point here. Perhaps the ever insightful, and very knowledgeable, Mike can find a way to incite a good discussion along these lines. I think it would be excellent.

@ Ed Taylor: I don't know much about Ms. Simon or her path to fame. But I just discovered that she's represented by Gagosian Gallery. Of course she didn't start out there and has some significant accolades on her cv, not the least of which is a Guggie. But Gagosian is pretty much today's pinnacle of the contemporary art world with its world-wide galleries and auction representations. Earlier this year I had dinner with a very successful artist who is also represented by this gallery. I asked him what he thought of his success and his general reply was, "What can I say? I've been Gagosian-ed.", meaning that to a great degree he is now owned and run by Gagosian.

From a broader perspective, however, I can think of many artists and photographers whose commercial success and fame mystifies me. Many of the relatively few cases with which I am more deeply familiar are, indeed, often the results of incessant promotion (self and representative) and influential faculty who took a special shine to the person during an MFA course of study. Getting one influential patron can lead to a good gallery rep which then leads to shows and the interests of museum curators (who are greatly influenced by gallery owners...such as Gagosian).

Separately, to those who crit Ms. Simon's photos I would reply that they probably aren't intended to appeal to the photo crowd, per se. Rather, her audience is in the contemporary art world which is infinitely more lucrative and not at all interested in cameras. Rather like Andreas Gursky, the fact that she uses a camera to create her works would seem of purely incidental necessity.

I'd say her agenda *is* her work, and it's not hidden in the slightest--she's as clear about it as she can be. She's commenting on the nature of information and how photographs are used, how they distort and deceive as well as tell the truth, how even clear views of various "secret sites" are still just points of view and not very probative.

The above might not be the best way of summarizing the 17.5 minutes in a few words, but anyway I thought she was very clear about what she's after and the kinds of things that interest her.


I saw her exhibition at the Photographer's Gallery in London a while ago.

The prints are quite large and although not particularly aesthetically pleasing they certainly work very well in an exhibition. The impact is immediate and strong. The images themselves are very unsettling to see, and once one starts reading the text it all becomes extremely fascinating and suddenly an hour has passed and the gallery is closing. :-)

Not all photography is "art" and not all art is meant to be beautiful.

I certainly wouldn't buy a print to hang on my wall, but I would definitely go to an exhibition again, and may get a book.

Thanks for pointing out this TED Talk. I find these talks very thought provoking.

In this day and age where even the news broadcast is not impartial, the expectation that artists should let their art do the talking is interesting. Any documentary art is useless without the accompanying text that explains the situation and the artist's interpretation of it.

This talk has an agenda, as well as the pictures that accompany it. The stories she talks about are fragments of American life we don't usually see in the news (Especially outside the USA). In fact, most people are probably not aware of even half the issues raised in this presentation.

A very strong argument on the "truthiness" of photography. No Potatochop needed.

I found Ms. Simon's work very affecting, and found her to be very articulate in explicating it. I didn't find her comment about 90% of her "photography" being non-photographic strange, or even especially surprising -- we all do a great many ancillary things to facilitate the making of our images -- but I have always found something odd about the business of making images that must be explained (in Ms. Simon's case it, in considerable detail) in order for the viewer to fully appreciate them. When I look at images, I'm often curious to hear what the artist may have to say about them, but it seems to me that if an image can't be apprehended and appreciated on it's own, sans commentary, then maybe something is missing from the image itself.

For me, the oddest thing about this presentation was the discussion of the "space between the text and the image." I'm pretty sure I understand what she's talking about well enough, but if the essence of the work -- the piece the artist really wants the viewer to grapple with -- lies somewhere outside the image itself, should we really think of the work as photography, or something else?

Maybe none of this matters a great deal. After all, who cares whether Ms. Simon is called a "photographer," or perhaps a "social critic who incorporates photography" into her commentary. I think she has some fascinating things to say, and her images certainly help make her points, but by putting so much emphasis on the supporting commentary, one wonders whether she's confident in the ability of her images to stand on their own.

There are some weird comments here and I'm struggling to understand them, to be honest. I mean "it's clear that her interests lie not in photography, but in the human condition" ....! What was Cartier-Bresson interested in, lenses or people? I've had several conversations about that video today and was immediately moved to order the books.

Excellent post Ken. This is similar to my experience of artists, self-promotion and galleries in Britain. Of course, entry into the contemporary art world is a much bigger prize than straight photography.

Her language goes straight to the heart of much of the theory driven contemporary art crowd. Clever and sharp but formulaic.

Gotta say, I thought the talk was a load of sophomoric twaddle, but I've been wrong before.

I thought just about any one of the Lynsey Addario photographs was worth everything Ms. Simon did.

Charlie Rose interview...


@John Camp
Why is documenting war and misery all over the world is more important or worthwhile then documenting peculiar behaviour in the USA ?

As a non-American I am out of touch of the issues involved but still found her talk very interesting. The photos does not strike you like a Ansel Adams or even a Weston 8x10. Quite but not very artistic without the word

It is however the comments about the "but" that strike me though. She is very pretty and this attribute I do not know what to do about when I watch the video.

Normally a large format guy (4x5 Sinar she used and color film in some cases) I associated is man and not all of them quite pretty may I say. But what to do about a lady who can be on the other side of the lens?

I then think that it is irrelevant. It is honest -- we admit we see that as a male seeing a female. Then we shall ignore that irrelevant part but to move on the more important features of her. Hence I have to agree Ken to use the "but" there.

One of the best photography video but a male did have to pass some barrier in her cases to ignore some irrelevant feature.

I found the part on the wrongfully accused disturbing. It shows how imperfect the legal system is, whether in the US or elsewhere, and how you can become a toy in fate's hands. I think that part of the video should be obligatory viewing for every LEO, prosecution employee, and court judge in every country.

This is work that brilliantly uses photography in the service of art -- i.e., to question truths we take for granted, to remind us of truths we've forgotten, and to suggest that nothing is what it seems. Many artists who use the medium of photography as their mode of artistic expression don't succeed -- either because photography may not be the most suitable vehicle for their intended ideas, or because the resulting artwork doesn't work as photographs. I think Simon nails it on both ends.

Her work could only exist as photography -- in light of its ability to render accurately and given our belief that it tells "the truth" -- and, unlike some here, I find the resulting photographs to be terrific photographs as well. Well composed, beautifully lit and colored.

Anyway, as Simon says in the presentation (and you'll know if you've seen the books or her exhibits), the "unit" of her art is the photo AND the accompanying text. The full experience of the art is gained only by looking at the photo and digesting the text together.

It just happened so, that I saw the video just a few minutes after going through a volume of Helen Levitts street photography. Levitts pictures each tell an individual story – often with a very poetic or humorous twist. The pictures in the book had no accompanying information at all: no captions, no notes of place and date. And it wasn’t really needed either to appreciate these wonderful pictures, one by one.
A part from a few, Taryn Simons pictures does not seem to have the same immediate and individual impact. They certainly need captions and maybe even longer explanations. Most of them would not be interesting outside of the context of her projects.
But then again: they are not meant to be. And her projects are in my mind very interesting and thought provoking. You don’t need to turn many pages in any beginners guide to photography, before you read this piece of advice: “You should have a project”. I’ve never really bothered having one – that might be one of several reasons, that I’m not famous. Taryn Simon bothered. She even bothered to think quite a lot about what she was doing, and to put her thoughts before the crowd for an open discussion. That is not just a legitimate way of practicing photography as an art form – it’s even admirable.
To claim that the type of photography that Helen Lewitt did is more real art than that was Taryn Simon do (or vice versa) is like discussing if a collecting of poems are more real art than a novel.

I had a hard time getting through Taryn Simon's speech, what with all the 'high art' buzzwords, splashy production values and the relentless self-promotion.

I think Ravi Bindra has it precisely right: the "Nigella Lawson" of photography. Simon is being heavily promoted by Gagosian, the fabulously wealthy and assiduously self-promoting art monger. Lawson coincidentally is married to Charles Saatchi, another immensely rich titan of the incestuous art world. Both Gagosian and Saatchi are prominently featured in Don Thompson's hilarious $12 Million Stuffed Shark, a snarky tour through the contemporary art world.

One of the saddest truths of modern arts & letters is the obscene emphasis on the physical attractiveness of artists & authors. Just look at the author photo on the jacket of any contemporary fiction book. Since the artist's "brand" and potential for marketing have become far more important than, you know, the art, it's become essential for the artist to be beautiful. Physically plain but brilliant artists need not apply. There's now an almost insurmountable barrier in the way of the next Poe, Dumas, Winogrand...(insert your own favorite homely artist).

Sorry about the rant; but I feel better now.

Well, I for one did not like the talk, nor the photographs. This was all very easy and exploitative stuff. And actually very politically correct. For instance the point about the nuclear material... if you stand near to it, you are killed _instantly_? Really? Yes, we do know that everything nuclear is bad (or is it?). I think this was all just surfing on the "air du temps", as we say in French, exploiting the current mood. There was a lot of "given" in her comments, we are supposed to espouse her views, but the photographs did not bring anything new. Sorry for the rambling...

Certainly not Hidden or Secret, more correct would be unknown. The images themselves are very uninteresting to say the least and without the explanations totally incomprehensible. I would venture to say Voyeuristic too. This seems to me to be very Arts Fartsy and if her name would be Ms. Joe Blogs, married to Mr Nobody she wouldn't get a second look anywhere.

Bernard and Geoff, you have both made explicit what I left to be read between the lines of my post. Sometimes it is healthier and more refreshing just to be direct.

"This seems to me to be very Arts Fartsy and if her name would be Ms. Joe Blogs, married to Mr Nobody she wouldn't get a second look anywhere."

Except of course here, from me.


By the way, who is Taryn Simon married to? I have no idea, and it didn't occur to me to be something I should look into. I don't see how it's relevant.

She is the girlfriend of Jake Paltrow, brother of Gwyneth, and i dont know why this is relevant, too.

I was struck by how well I remembered Taryn Simon's American Index series after last seeing them on Americansuburb X nearly a year ago. On that site, the images were shown first with no captions and no context, then with about the same level of description as given in her TED talk. I think they hold up very well with and without captions. Incidentally, I had no idea who she was related to, married to, promoted by, etc.

I'm surprised at the proposed rule that photography has to hold its own with no captions. That rule would kill off most photojournalism.

I also don't understand why a flat recitation of an accepted fact (effects of exposure to radioactive waste) is considered a political statement.

Finally, wondering how she acquired access feels just one step removed from saying "I could have shot those (better)." Me too, if I had the idea, access, skill, determination, and all that other stuff that I don't.

Interesting post, Mike. Shame about the comments.

"Since the artist's "brand" and potential for marketing have become far more important than, you know, the art, it's become essential for the artist to be beautiful."
...and as a consequence, we do of course not need to take any photographer seriously, if she is a woman and happens to be good looking. Let’s instead go directly to talk about who she is married to, or better still: who some TV-star who has absolutely nothing to do with the whole story is married to.

"Shame about the comments."

Not really. I remember talking to a religious prosyletizer--soapbox-preacher type--at the University of Maryland a number of years ago. He was being heckled relentlessly by a few students and I wanted to know if he minded. He said, "Oh no. The hecklers are where all the converts come from." His notion was that the hecklers were engaged and passionate; the people who listened silently, shrugged, and wandered away were the ones he wasn't getting through to.

I'm not saying any of the comments here amount to heckling, nor am I saying that Simon's art is something anyone needs to be--or could be--"converted" to. All I'm saying is that rejecting art is a valid way of engaging with it, as far as I'm concerned.


Bitter. Bitter. Bitter. Shame on many of you.

Fact is, most found the concept and execution enviably interesting before having an inkling the photographer was:

A. Female
B. Not unattractive

Let's face it, if she was a lumpy little troll giving the talk, none of this discussion would have occurred.

Mike, At what point criticizing the art because the artist is too fat/thin/short/tall/ugly/beautiful/etc.. becomes pointless ?

When someone attacks the person, rather than the issue they represent or promote they demote a discussion to demagoguery.

@Kurt, I live in New Zealand, and Nuclear power is a major political topic since the 80s. It is also a subject of which many Green parties around the world thrive on.

Mike, Very interesting last comment, about "hecklers". Really twisted my brain; going to have to think about this for a while, including rejection as affirmation of the art itself.

1) Got nothing to do with male/female; jacket photos for male novelists are every bit as beauty-oriented these days as those for writers who happen to be women. It's now all about the branding.

2) I feel quite strongly that this phenomenon is a blight on the art world, one that sharply constricts the range of voices we are even permitted to hear. But nowhere in my comments did I suggest that we may therefore safely dismiss work that happens to come from an attractive artist.

@I'm Curious Greyscale: "I was reading about the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in Time Magazine and I recalled there being a virginity test. I distinctly remember thinking "that's barbaric." "

Don't leave us hanging. Was Prince Charles a virgin?

All I'm saying is that rejecting art is a valid way of engaging with it, as far as I'm concerned.

I take no issue with someone rejecting Ms. Simon's art. It's the comments about her appearance that I find tedious.

@hugo solo:
here's a link to the video with captions in Spanish.
I don't know if what she does is "Art", but I have to say I'm not sure I really care. I'm just grateful to Mike for making her exciting and insightful perspective available through TOP. It's certainly a refreshing change from pointless --and endless-- debates over "DoF" or "Dx vs FX", etc.
That being said, I think an artist's (or, say, "social commentator's")economic success --or lack thereof-- should have nothing to do with the artistic, or "social" value of her work. Ditto for her looks or who she is married to.
More interesting questions should be in the line of: "is she saying/doing something no one else is?"; and if so, "how does that make me feel, and why?".
Sorry for the rambling, and congrats again, Mike.

"...jacket photos for male novelists are every bit as beauty-oriented these days as those for writers who happen to be women."
Yes, Geoff, but since when it started to happen to portraiture?

Anyway, here's a helping hand for us, true ugly writers:

I don't think there's anything wrong with commenting on her looks or raising the issue of whether her looks and connections brought her success. Anyone who thinks that those things don't have a HUGE impact on an artist's success in this day and age (and, realistically, probably every age) is being naive.

Simon's work is interesting, but there are probably 50 other photographers who do work that's just as good or better and are unknown. Simon is successful and famous partly through talent, and partly because of luck. That's just the way of the world.

BTW, Simon's success and this lecture are great real life examples of what Dan Clowes described in "Art School Confidential."

Thanks for the link to Taryn Simon's talk, Mike

It's refreshing to see and hear an artist and photographer attempting to find a "certain balance" with a little, if tempered, idealism. A nice contrast with the comfortable worldly cynicism on display by many of the commenters.

I only watched a couple of minutes of the video, but I read every one of the comments. I love this site. Its readers seem to be quite above the average of blog commenters (though I have a certain bias). You must feel good about attracting such a crowd, Mike.
Bless 'em all--the long and the short and the tall.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007