Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Photography: An American Index of the Hidden or Unfamiliar - Taryn Simon

Taryn Simon's photographs are obtrusive. Actually, that's not strictly true; her photography is obtrusive. Her photographs are simple, and let the subject speak with little elaboration, flamboyance or context. Indeed, without the detailed descriptions that accompany her records in An American Index of the Hidden or Unknown, you might not believe that what you were seeing was even real - or might not want to.

But the act of her photography is obtrusive. She visits spaces unknown, unaccessible or restricted to the American public and photographs them. They are spaces from the world of medicine, law, politics, government, entertainment, nature and security. You get the impression that Simon shouldn't actually be in some of these places - a woodland filled with corpses used for decay-rate analysis; a vast underground greenhouse used for growing cannabis for governmental study purposes. It seems like an overbearing security guard or government agent is actually standing over her shoulder in some cases - and they probably were. By all accounts, Simon gets turned away from as many of these secret spaces as she photographs.

One of these was the home of magic itself - Disney. Simon wanted to photograph the underground belly beneath Disneyland Florida - where Mickey Mouse gets changed or smokes a cigarette; where the rowdy or drunk get stored in a special holding cell. Somewhat understandably, Disney rejected her, citing a need to protect 'the magical spell cast on guests...' (Excerpted from a faxed response from Disney Publishing Worldwide, July 7, 2005).

Some of her photographs display systems that are functional, necessary, or downright crucial to human existence, yet which rarely cross the mind of the general public - like the Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land. VSNL International, Avon, NJ. These are cables that are capable of carrying 60 million simultaneous voice communications from Saunton Sands in the UK to New Jersey in the US.

Transatlantic Submarine Cables Reaching Land. VSNL International, Avon, NJ

Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan

This icy vault holds the bodies of Rhea and Elaine Ettinger, mother and wife of the cryogenics pioneer Robert Ettinger. Their bodies are frozen, safe from decay, hopefully to be reanimated when medical advances allow such phenomenon.

Research Marijuana Crop Grow Room, National Center for Natural Products Research, Oxford, Mississippi 

Nuclear Waste Encapsulation and Storage Facility Cherenkov Radiation, Hanford Site, U.S. 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. 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.

All photographs and descriptions © Taryn Simon.

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