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Taryn Simon Reveals the Fallacies of Photographs

Oct. 24, 2011
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Internationally renowned photographer Taryn Simon comes to the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM) courtesy of Curator of Photographs Lisa Hostetler. Hostetler has been following the artist's career for several years. The exhibit "Taryn Simon: Photographs and Texts" premieres three of Simon's photographic series in the museum's lower-level contemporary gallery.

With "Photographs and Texts," Simon demonstrates how photography can produce false images for viewers. What one sees in an image may be deceptive; Simon helps viewers see a larger truth through the text accompanying the images. Simon's texts prove her premise in the three series, each of which required considerable research and planning prior to the photo shoots.

The first series, The Innocents (2002), portrays individuals who were wrongly convicted of crimes and then later proven innocent through DNA evidence. Based on the visual aspect alone, the compelling portraits speak to Simon's dramatic eye. After reading the portraits' accompanying text, the viewer confronts the images' disturbing hidden reality. In Larry Mayes, a man in a dilapidated hotel room is sandwiched between the bed's box spring and mattress. The portrait's subject served more than 18 years of an 80-year sentence for rape and robbery, a victim of the justice system gone awry.

Simon's other series, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) and Contraband (2010), transform viewers' assumed context of the photographs. Index features images of elements, places and rooms that the public is likely unaware of or would rather not know about. A cryopreservation unit, live HIV in a bottle and deadly nuclear waste are three of the subjects that remain mysterious until they are illuminated by Simon's text. For Contraband, Simon spent time at New York's JFK International Airport photographing items that had been confiscated by U.S. Customs agents. Simon displays the prints of more than 1,000 banned objects to resemble specimens under glass. Every object transgresses its forbidden boundary through a visual image.

In the future, how will viewers accurately determine what they are seeing in a photograph? Will the image depict fact or fallacy? Only through critical questioning and astute thinking will the truth be found. Simon masterfully unveils illusions in fine art and contemporary culture in this intriguing, persuasive exhibit.

Curator Lisa Hostetler wrote an essay for an informational catalog available at the exhibition, which continues through Jan. 1, 2012.


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