Taryn Simon Her photographs offer a look at some of America's remaining unknown corners
SNEAK PEEK For a nation that was injured so grievously on Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. did not spend a lot of time nursing its wounds. Instead, we did what most countries do when they're attacked: we set out in pursuit of the people who did it. This left a quiet at home, and in that quiet, Taryn Simon turned inward.
Simon, now 33, thought some of the things that make the U.S. the remarkable--and sometimes polarizing--power it is might be hidden in its unseen corners, so she set out to explore those places. She drew up a list of subjects to photograph and began a four-year project to uncover them. "I wanted to show the foundations of America, but sites off the radar," she says. The result is Simon's 2007 book, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, just awarded the International Center of Photography's Infinity Award. True to the book's title, the subjects are hidden and unfamiliar--a Palestinian woman undergoing hymen reconstruction, nuclear waste, the Abstract Expressionist art gallery at the CIA's Langley, Va., headquarters. The images alone may seem merely artful, but coupled with Simon's toneless captions, they fast become haunting. "The text anchors the images with cruelly defining weight," she says.
Simon's most renowned book is 2002's The Innocents, which depicts exonerated death-row inmates. Both works could serve social--even political--ends, but Simon insists she should not be mistaken for a photojournalist, and her old-style technique indeed argues that she is not. She works with a large-format camera and will wait all day for the perfect shot rather than shoot multiple rolls and edit her film later. The process earns her trust and access. "I can't be sneaky," she says. The result of that openness is frank pictures, straightforwardly taken--and as a consequence, startlingly revealing.