White Tiger (Kenny), Selective Inbreeding
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge and Foundation
Eureka Springs, Arkansas
© Taryn Simon 

In the United States, all living white tigers are the result of selective inbreeding to artificially create the genetic conditions that lead to white fur, ice-blue eyes and a pink nose. Kenny was born to a breeder in Bentonville, Arkansas on February 3, 1999. As a result of inbreeding, Kenny is mentally retarded and has significant physical limitations. Due to his deep-set nose, he has difficulty breathing and closing his jaw, his teeth are severely malformed and he limps from abnormal bone structure in his forearms. The three other tigers in Kenny’s litter are not considered to be quality white tigers as they are yellow coated, cross-eyed, and knock-kneed. 


Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar left me cold, though now I know that was part of Simon’s intention. The pictures were on display recently at the Photographer’s Gallery and at the Whitney in New York, and are also published as a book from Steidl.  Simon’s previous work The Innocents Project set her photographs of wrongly-convicted death row prisoners against captions describing the circumstances in which they were misidentified or the ways that their conviction affected their lives.  The innocents are photographed in settings associated with the crimes from which they were exonerated.  These responses to the false memories and misidentifications that led to wrongful convictions are constructed fictions that comment on the supposed evidentiary nature of photography (that collapses – or lives – like Schrodinger’s cat when confronted by a subjective viewer).  The picture you see is necessarily linked to the caption you read, but they take you in two different directions, following two different kinds of authority. Simon’s masterful act is to provoke in the viewer the sensation of this splitting path.

An American Index operates on a similar mechanism: beautiful, classically composed, tonally rich, often exquisitely lit images from inside American “institutions” elicit a direct response to the aesthetic buttons Simon pushes while the captions (literally) tell a different story.  Besides spending four years seeking access to sites such as a cryopreservation unit , a nuclear waste storage facility, and the U.S. customs contraband room at JFK, she made an effort to photograph sites and situations that speak to an “awkward incongruity” (this from her interview in the latest issue of foam , well worth a read if you are interested in this work at all.)  The pictures from behind the closed doors of these institutions look like waxworks, like Broomberg and Chanarin’s Fig. but not drawing attention to mediation in the same way. Simon’s  awkward incongruity is in the attention to detail, in the just-so ness that has informed portraiture and large format photography over the last twenty-five or so years, the contradiction between a moment of time and passing time when the subject of the photograph is still but not settled. The awkward incongruity is also, explicitly, in the juxtaposition of images and captions. The captions are clinical: Simon states in the foam interview that she was influenced by “discovery books exposing and recording explorer’s finds (fauna and plant life) within the New World”. They show the effort of detachment at the same time that they reveal intense fascination with certain details. They attest to say everything that you  need to know about the subject to fill out your reading of it but they are impossibly brief and concise and you know that you are getting very little, really, enough to make you turn your first impression of the image on its head.

So here is where I am left cold: Simon is very clever and given the precedent of the Innocents Project, I felt like I could recognize a similar logic and effect as I moved through the Photographer’s Gallery. But I felt really, really confused and I know now from her interview that this was her intention: “It’s intentionally chaotic. The viewer should feel its entropy.” While the project speaks self-consciously to American disorientation at the start of the 21st century (and suggests that it has something to do with the institutions and futurist dreams of the 20th century), it feels as though there is no narrative here at all;  there is no master narrative and even the narratives created by image and caption pairings pull me in two different directions.  In producing the master disorienting effect, I felt like I was left with nothing at all, that the institutions didn’t matter (despite the amount of time Simon took getting into them), that the pictures and the words denied one another, that the “Index” was tongue in cheek but also bewilderingly deliberate.  This is not a secret history of the hidden and the unfamiliar, it’s not a coherent fictive history; it’s a casebook of contradictions with plenty of method but no clear narrative as far as I can see, and the thing that leaves me cold is that until I read that interview, I couldn’t tell if I was confused because Simon wanted me to be or in spite of her efforts.

So now I know, and the work, spinning chaos out of its apparent order, seems colder than ever.