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Interview

November 14, 2007

Laurie Simmons

Photographer and filmmaker Laurie Simmons has been at the forefront of New York's contemporary art scene since the late '70s. One of the featured artists in this season's Art:21 — Art in the Twenty-First Century series on PBS, Simmons makes photographs and films that draw from everyday life, fantasies, and pop culture. Artkrush editor Paul Laster interviewed Simmons after her recent return from a two-gallery exhibition in Madrid.

AK:  What does a camera represent to you?

LS:  I'm not and never have been a techie, so my camera is like a mysterious portal to the scene I want to shoot. I've never been completely sure how it works.

AK:  Do you use only one camera, or do you have different ones for different tasks?

LS:  I have two cameras that are old and basic and look like toys. One is a solid black Nikon my husband shot with in high school — it's like an extension of my right hand. The other is a used Contax 645 medium format that I bought a year and a half ago. I love holding it. When I need to shoot in bigger formats, I hire people to shoot for me.

AK:  What kinds of subjects are you drawn to?

LS:  Well, let's see…. so far, I've documented dolls in interiors, cowboy figures, plastic divers, fake fish, real people swimming in pools and oceans, rubber dolls falling into pools, ceramic ballet dancers, plastic Japanese dolls color-coordinated to rear-screen projected interiors and tourist sites, real girls in cheap polyester clothing, portraits of HO-scale train figures shot under an electron microscope (with Allan McCollum), portraits of ventriloquists and dummies at Kentucky's Vent Haven Museum, sculptures of dummies with thought bubbles showing their dirty fantasies, household objects connected to legs (both real and fake), interiors of a dollhouse I designed in 2000 called Kaleidoscope House, and, most recently, naked girls in color-coordinated interiors.

AK:  Many of your works feature a strong chiaroscuro aesthetic. Can you talk about your use of light and shadow?

LS:  Despite the kinds of issues — political, feminist, psychological — that have been associated with my work, I'd say that light and shadow are the most important things to me. In the end, I'm a picture maker, and if the light isn't there, I can't make the picture. That's where the alchemy happens. You know, it's funny, sometimes I see other people's work, and I notice that they can't get the light quite right, and the pictures end up dead, flat. I just want to say, "Um, move the lights a little to the left."

AK:  Can you tell us about the role of personal and historical pasts in your work?

LS:  The truth is that as soon as I finished making my movie, I knew I was done with the past. I've mined all the history — my own and collective — I can. It's the present tense for me from this point forward.

AK:  Is there one situation that ties all of your work together?

LS:  I often refer to myself as a dog with a bone: an artist with one subject — a figure, more often female than male, in an interior. Within this one structure, I can pretty much cover whatever I need to. Of course, I'm loose with the definition of "interior." A figure floating in the ocean is still enclosed within the space created by the parameters of my lens. That's interiority as well.

AK:  How do you explore photography's ability to be both truthful and false?

LS:  I'm not interested in the truthful part — that's why I don't take my camera out on the street. When I first started shooting black-and-white dollhouse interiors in the mid-'70s, the camera's ability to document yet lie was decidedly the more radical path. I remember seeing Gordon Matta-Clark's snapshots of the interiors of the houses he'd sliced apart. I loved the feeling I got from them. I wanted to mimic that rawness and sense of nowhere. I actually thought my pictures could replicate that emotional veracity, though what and where they were could remain ambiguous. I used to love the story — before it was made into a movie — of the little girls who convinced people that fairies were real by showing them doctored photographs.

AK:  What influence has film had on your work?

LS:  The look of films, from Michael Powell to Douglas Sirk to Ed Lachman, has always had an influence on my work.

AK:  What element of composition is most important in your work?

LS:  Juxtaposition is everything since there may only be two, three, or four components in one of my images. I credit both my minimalist roots and my father's absurdly composed home movies and family snapshots for that facility for arrangement.

AK:  Can objects be brought to life through art?

LS:  It depends what objects you're talking about. Some, yes: Van Gogh's old shoes, a Matisse still life. Jasper Johns' flag. Warhol's soup can. These objects may as well stand up and walk away.

AK:  How did it feel to bring your past bodies of work to life in your film Music of Regret?

LS:  It felt eerie, weird, scary, exhilarating. Since the characters I've worked with imply speech, song, or dance, I often imagined what they might say or do or think. At the very least, I would play some strange music while I worked.

There's a scene in Act 2 where the female ventriloquist dummy, originally constructed in 1994 to look like me, morphs into Meryl Streep, who's also made up to look like me. That scene still startles me. Well, actually, it blows my mind.

AK:  What role does play have in your work?

LS:  I was never one to sit still and play as a child. I think I was that rambunctious, quasi-ADD kid that most adults feared… except for when I was drawing. I notice that, because I use toys in my work, many people ask me about the role of playing. When I'm working, it's the same involved creative process as anyone else — artist, writer, musician, needlepointer. That kind of artistic involvement definitely affects your brain waves and sense of time. Maybe intense play is the same, but I can't really remember.

AK:  What's your next challenge?

LS:  After the adrenaline earthquake of making a movie, it was very difficult to re-inhabit the emotional space of studio photography. I guess the problem is one of comparison in the first place. I've been shooting still photographs my entire adult life, and I've always loved how quiet it is and how the real action is in your brain. To compare being a director on a movie set full of people and being a still photographer is misguided, but I think I now see photography as a kind of antidote to filmmaking. I don't think I could withstand that kind of stress or raise that kind of money on a regular basis, but I need to keep analyzing what it meant and how it should affect me going forward.

Laurie Simmons' photography is on view at Galeria Distrito Cu4tro in Madrid through November 23. Her film Music of Regret is screening at Espacio Distrito Cu4tro in Madrid through November 23 and at New York's Metroploitan Museum of Art on January 27. Galerie de Multiples is exhibiting her work at Paris Photo November 15-18. Season four of Art:21 — Art in the Twenty-First Century can be viewed on DVD and in an accompanying book published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. A comprehensive monograph, Laurie Simmons: Walking, Talking, Lying, was published by Aperture in 2005.

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