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American artist Taryn Simon is a photojournalist in the truest sense of the word. Probably her most well-known work is a series of portraits entitled “The Innocents”, documenting the stories of individuals who served time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Here she questions the uses and abuses of photography in the criminal justice system.
Her latest project, on show at the Photographers’ Gallery, sees Simon as quasi-sociopolitical commentator once more as she delights in exposing the dark, unseen underbelly of American culture. Over a period of four years, Simon managed to gain access to some of the most clandestine, closed-off institutions and groups of society in America; some so secret that most viewers would not have even been aware of their existence.
From an infectious medical waste treatment centre to a cryopreservation unit, a white tiger interbreeding farm to a copy of Playboy magazine published in braille (produced with public funds), Simon’s subject matter confirms her role as a gatherer of information and a collector of curiosities, as she strives to blur the divide between access of the privileged few and that of the general public.
Although Simon’s images are anchored in hard fact, they retain the aesthetic of fine art photography. The glossy large-format prints have an almost hyper-real quality that renders them seductively beautiful. A faded white still life of a cryopreservation unit enveloped in dry ice is eerily enchanting, the shredded and disinfected waste from a medical treatment centre mingles colourfully to resemble the thick daubs of oil paint of an abstract expressionist artwork and a top shot of nuclear waste capsules glows neon blue with radiation.
The descriptive text that accompanies each print adds to its impact; they are in many ways as important as the photographs themselves.
At first glance the semi-clothed body lying in a bed of autumnal leaves in a dark woodland glade, in what looks like a crime scene from a David Lynch film, is barely discernable. Simon tells us that this is a daily scene from a forensic research facility, known as the “body farm” where cadavers are donated for studies in corpse decomposition.
In a linear shot of thick orange wires emerging through the floor of an empty room, we are told that the telecommunication cables have travelled 8,037.4 miles (she likes to be precise) across the Atlantic Ocean; giving way to thoughts of hundreds of thousands of fractured conversations converging in this barren space.
While Simon’s work deals with the “found”, British photographer Nicholas Hughes focuses on loss and social apathy. Showing alongside Simon at the Photographers’ Gallery Print Room, Hughes’s haunting images are an elegy to the fragility of nature and a lament for its increasingly rapid demise.
Inspired by travelling around London on public transport at night, “Verse I” is made up of a series of the city’s treescapes. The skeletal silhouettes of leafless branches are illuminated by the glow of the moon, which punctuates the centre of each of the images. Layer on layer of negatives have been exposed to give the trees a ghostly transparency; twisted and entwined, they have the dark, fairytale quality of Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.
Heavily influenced by J.M.W. Turner, the prints in Hughes’ “Verse II” series, consisting of seascapes, have a lustrous, painterly quality. Travelling to the now heavily polluted Irish Sea of his childhood, Hughes captures the dark iridescence of the ocean at night, the waves highlighted by the moon in what he describes as “the deep swirling chaos with shafts of enlightenment”.
With western society’s increasing desensitisation to the world around it and the overwhelming desire for the exotic and unknown, Hughes urges the viewer to think, stop and see wonderment and beauty in their immediate environment.
While Simon goes to greater lengths to gain access to her subject matter, her aim is to encourage the viewer to look deeper, and to question what goes unknown to the majority of people in our society.
Both these artists use their images, with their own unique lyricism, to draw attention to that which goes largely unnoticed.
‘Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’, and Nicholas Hughes: In Darkness Visible
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