A prolific photographer, filmmaker, and performer, Laurie Simmons has exhibited her artwork widely since the late 1970s. With the Jewish Museum’s exhibition Laurie Simmons: How We See, on view through August 9, the artist marks her first solo exhibition at a New York City museum. We teased an excerpt from our Q&A with Simmons in the Museum’s recently released Spring & Summer 2015 Members’ Newsletter. In the following complete interview, the artist discusses the process and inspiration behind How We See.
The Jewish Museum: Congratulations on your first New York museum show. What does it mean to exhibit your work here?
Laurie Simmons: New York is really where my career began, so it’s an honor. I remember coming to the Jewish Museum as a young artist — there’s so much history here. I’m proud to be a part of that.
JM: Photographing live models for this series was a new direction for your artistic practice. What brought you to this point?
LS: On a visit to Japan in 2009, I had my first contact with Kigurumi. There were all these communities of people dressing up in masks and costumes, inhabiting these fantastic personas. There was a fluidity to their identities that I was attracted to. After shooting a life-size love doll I acquired on that trip, and seeing the potential there, I felt it was time to move on to the real thing. It was the first time that I could photograph in human scale without working with a real person. It changed everything.
JM: Considering that How We See is on view at the Jewish Museum, how would you describe your connection to Judaism?
LS: I grew up in a post-World War II Jewish suburb — it was a gentle, almost picture-perfect environment. It felt like a particular time and place in American Jewish history. I think I could sense my family’s gratitude for the home that the United States had provided. My parents were patriotic — my father fought in World War II and my parents took American holidays like Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July very seriously.
JM: Thinking back to the beginning of your career, what first inspired you to take on photography as your medium?
LS: I first picked up a camera in 1975. Before that I had thought very little about photography. I felt odd picking up a camera. I certainly didn’t think it was a tool for art-making. I found that what I had studied in art school — painting, sculpture, and printmaking, in my traditional art education — was not really happening in New York. Or, if it was happening, it was being upended by conceptual art, process art, film and video. I know this is hard to comprehend now, but it seemed like at the center of everything new there was a camera.
JM: Did you study photography formally or were you self-taught?
LS: Well, once I picked up a camera, I decided I had to backtrack and educate myself. It was tedious but I did set up a darkroom: I taught myself how to develop film. I decided that I literally had to put my money where my mouth was. I had to learn about the history of photography. Granted, this was 1975 and the first photograph was made around 1833, so it’s not like I made a huge scholarly endeavor to figure out what happened in those hundred some odd years, but it was part of my process. When I made a print, I made it 50 ways. It was almost as if the prints became abstractions to me — I printed them and stared at them until they sort of became devoid of meaning.
JM: How do you feel about a photograph’s relationship to truth — what Susan Sontag called the “presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority”?
LS: I’ve said and written this ad nauseam at this point: Cameras were often considered a tool for truth-telling. But I saw the camera as a fantastic tool for lying, for misrepresentation, for being a trickster. When I set up my first miniature empty rooms, with no dolls or people, I thought there was a good chance that people would look at these pictures and think they were real rooms [laughs]. This seems preposterous now. But I was intrigued by the idea that I could set up these small worlds, which felt magical to me: I would look through the viewfinder and feel like they were real places. It was much like my experience of being read to as a child — like I could enter the pages of the picture book.
JM: How do you feel about playing with toys?
LS: Well, there are lots of levels and layers to that. There are toys, and there is toying. Toying with someone may seem kind of diabolical; it implies a certain kind of manipulation. In terms of my work, I’m nothing if not a grand manipulator.
JM: You mention your experience with fantasy as a child — is “fantasy” a word that you associate with your work now?
LS: “Fantasy” isn’t a great word for me in terms of visual art, or at least it wasn’t in the past. When you think about fantasy, you think about Walt Disney and fairytales and dress up. It’s one of those words I would always push away, along with “humor” and “surrealism.” I wasn’t comfortable when those words were used to describe my pictures, at least in the first 20 years of making work. Now I’m comfortable talking about what I do on many levels. I realize more and more that it’s all there, and those words aren’t reductive. There are many layers for me to examine, and many ways in which I can discuss my work or my work can be interpreted.
JM: Are there any words that are applied to your work that make you uncomfortable?
LS: Narrative is a word that I have pushed and pushed away — I’ve always resisted storytelling. I’ve never had any interest in creating work that implies a moment before or a moment after. Even if you see movement in my work, the potential to dance or walk or move or speak, I still don’t see it as a story. In an image that implies a story, there’s a knife on the floor. There’s blood on the knife. There are some clues — things in the picture that hint that something has happened or will happen. That’s a place I haven’t wanted to go in my pictures.
JM: So the title of your exhibition, How We See, doesn’t suggest a narrative but an action?
LS: What I like about the title of the show is that it reminds me of the books we read in the 1st and 2nd grades. Everything was delivered in declarative sentences: See Jane run, see Dick run, see Spot jump. There weren’t many questions, and we were supposed to take everything we read as absolute truth. I can just imagine having a little book called How We See.
JM: Color, scale, and proportion all seem to play important roles in your large-scale photographic portraits in How We See. How did you hope that visitors would view or interact with your images?
LS: When making this group of work, I was able to go back to the “objecthood” of an artwork. I knew I would make them big, I knew people would stand in front of them, and I knew there would be many different colors. I also knew that they could be dismissed as a one-liner. That was the challenge for me… how to get people to engage with each image and each model separately — to look at each face in the same way that you might look at a portrait or a picture of someone in a magazine. I want people to deal with the scale of the thing in front of them.
JM: In some of your early work, dolls served as ready-made stand-ins for people. In contemporary “Doll Girls” subculture — which your new work references — we seem to see the reverse: young women adopting the characteristics of their play things.
LS: There is an implied relationship to domesticity in many girls’ toys. I was thinking about that a lot in my work from the 1970s and ‘80s. I’m also interested in that place between human and object — the place where a doll seems to move towards being human, or a human seems to move towards being a doll or an inanimate object. These interstitial spaces really interest me. Artifice interests me — that’s where I operate from.
JM: You’ve said that that artifice is what interests you about the internet and, in particular, about social media.
LS: I think that digital internet culture presents the possibility of a new way to tell lies. You can play and shape your online identity. Today, especially through social media, we have the power to show ourselves — and see ourselves — in whatever way we desire. It’s almost too exciting a way to lie because, in some sense, you never have to reveal your identity. It’s liberating on the one hand, but that kind of connectedness — or lack of — also comes at a price. Questions like “what is the true self?” do not seem to be at the forefront of any conversation now.
JM: Can you tell us anything about what you’re working on next?
LS: I’m working on a film project, which is really a narrative. I guess I’ve had this pent-up desire to tell a story that I would never ever let enter into my visual art. So now, after all this time, I’m ready and excited to tell a story — but NOT in my still pictures.
See the artist’s photographic portraits in How We See, currently on view at the Jewish Museum. More information about the exhibition may be found here.
— Julie Reiter, Marketing Assistant, the Jewish Museum, with many thanks to Molly Kurzius, Senior Publicist, the Jewish Museum, and Roger Kamholz, Writer, the Jewish Museum.