This Week In Photography Books

Three local high school kids got very lost on Thanksgiving night. It was nihilistically dark out, and they inexplicably drove their car into a ditch in the middle of our pasture. I’d never of known, as I was already sleeping when it happened. I awoke to violent pounding on my bedroom door, and after the initial fear-based adrenaline dump, I realized that my mother-in-law was outside making a ruckus about tress-passers, and imploring us to let her in. She had a very big gun wrapped in her sweatshirt, and we scattered about trying to figure out what to do.

After deliberating, we chose to call the Sheriff, and learned that it would be 15 minutes or so before help arrived. That’s a long time to wait when shit goes South, and nasty things happen out here all the time. Fortunately, my father-in-law arrived, ever the voice of reason, and walked out into the night, unarmed, to find out what was really going on. So I found myself, shortly thereafter, canceling the cavalry, and helping to tow the probably-stoned-out-of-their-mind kids out of my fallow irrigation ditch. Crisis averted. Gun returned to its proper home under my mother-in-law’s pillow.

This time of year, with Thanksgiving a week behind us and Christmas fast approaching, we often focus on the annoying and obnoxious aspects of family. We don’t like their presents, or their body odor, or how much noise they make when they chew. We bitch about the boring stories, the TV remote gamesmanship, and the leaden, lard-based Christmas cookies. (OK, that was an exaggeration. Lard makes the cookies lighter. Mmmm, pig cookies.)

What’s my point here? Since we’ve been walking upright, family has been the core bond that ensured that our species survived, then thrived, and now is back in survival mode. Our family is our backup, our own personal army, our clan, our blood. I’ve never doubted for one second that if anything ever went wrong, my wife’s Mom would be breaking down the door, gun in hand, ready to kick some ass. And now I know I was right all along. But the funny thing was, there wasn’t any actual danger. Bonnie, in her fear, succumbed to irrational thinking, and imagined the worst of the situation. 30 seconds talking to the kids would have alleviated her concern.

Since the Renaissance, enlightened scholars have tended to focus on our ability, as creatures, to reason. We have the intellect to act rationally, and over-ride our emotional response to the world. So they say. Nowadays, it’s more fashionable, at least within the world of Behavioral Economics, to accept the opposite. Our reptilian brains, the core of our mental functioning, are strong, and we often act in manners not commensurate with our own best interest. Yes, we can think. But we’re animals. And we’re still afraid of the dark.

It’s funny, but after ten plus years of fighting in Afghanistan, we’re still no closer to democratizing the joint. It’s too tribal, they say. Too remote to conquer. Loyalties are always to the clan, and not some faceless bureaucratic enterprise in Kabul. You know why? Because the government doesn’t come rushing to your aid when there are demons at your door. Your family does. Your neighbors. The people right there in your face. Your blood.

Which is why I was so blown away when I slowly, carefully unpacked a pristine copy of Taryn Simon’s new book, “A Living Man Declared Dead, and Other Chapters.” Straight off, I’ll say this book isn’t for everyone. It’s expensive, for starters. And it’s so big that it would be perfect for braining an intruder, if you could actually lift the thing to do the dirty deed. So let’s not assume I’m shilling this thing for Ms. Simon, or for MACK, her perfectionist British publisher.

For the project, which was presented as a solo exhibition at the Tate Modern earlier this year, Ms. Simon spent four years traveling around the world, a modern-day-art-sleuth. She’s very good at showing us what we don’t know we wan’t to see, and in this case she focused on the aforementioned issues at the core of our collective human nature: the power of the clan, and the absurdity or our irrationality. Given that the book is so big and well-constructed, I can see future anthropologists giggling over their coffee pills as they look back on our ridiculous manner of navigating through the world.

Ms. Simon divides the book, and the project, in to chapters. 18 to be exact. Each begins the same way, with a grid of portraits of a clan connected by blood, starting with a particular person, and charting their descendants through time. She’s gone around the Earth to bring back the kind of stories that you think nobody could make up, which is why it makes such a fascinating truth. The title refers to a man in India who was declared dead so that several of his relatives could steal his land claim. Another chapter follows the family of a man abducted by the North Koreans, who’ve resorted to finding immigrants by any means necessary. There’s a chapter devoted to Uday Hussein’s body double, a family of Tanzanian albinos, the “perfect” government sanctioned Chinese family, victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the Scottish mother of a set of thalidomide triplets from the 70’s, and many, many more. (Each is separated by a strong piece of beige canvas. Nice touch.)

After the initial grid, Ms. Simon includes evidence-style images connecting the clan to the crime, so to speak. From there, we see larger, individual portraits of every member of the blood-line that she was able to photograph. Though she’s often been criticized for her super-dry style, I found each portrait to be compelling. Which is really hard to do. The book is so large that you think you’d just glance at the portraits, all these strangers an after-thought, but that’s not how it works. Each face is different than the next, and odd in some magical way. When she encountered people she couldn’t shoot, Ms. Simon published blank gaps in the grid, which becomes a powerful visual symbol. The text explains the reason for the omission, be it religious conviction, travel restrictions, or fear of being kidnapped. Of course there’s plenty of text, explaining the stories, making the connections. And plenty of rabbits too. Lots and lots of rabbits. (Her only non-human narrative focuses on the explosion of the rabbit population in Australia, where the creatures are non-native, and the extreme measures taken by the Aussies to kill the little buggers.)

At it’s core, this book feels as much like a science project as an art series. It’s methodical, categorical, and clearly obsessive. (I have a little vision of Ms. Simon ordering lunch in a diner: egg white omelette, cheese on the side, wheat toast, lightly done, butter and jam on the side on separate plates, coffee, not too hot, with milk instead of cream, shaken, not stirred.) We’ve all heard the stories about how August Sander really wanted to photograph every German, broken down into sub-sections, one at a time. It seems as if Ms. Simon has accomplished the root of that dream, by making our craziest realities a proxy for everyone. Her clans, meticulously traced, represent us all. In a time when the worst predictions feed fear of our imminent decline, it feels like an accomplishment meant as much for our descendants as for us.
Bottom Line: Expensive, but worth it

To purchase A Living Man Declared Dead, and Other Chapters visit Photo-Eye.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 13 Comments On This Article.

  1. Rob – I love how you can take a personal moment and turn it into and intro to the critique of this book. You have clearly found your stride both as a writer and as a critic. Well done.

    • I had a look through the book this summer at a friend’s house who got it from Simon’s gallerist. I must say that I’m quite surprised it’s only $125. It’s certainly a beautifully made object and feels a bit like a nice encyclopedia. If you like owning/collecting beautiful photo books this is certainly a good investment.
      That being said, when I recently looked at the book in a bookshop and was trying to decide whether or not I should buy it I thought “Am i really gonna look at this more than once? Or more importantly, am I really gonna go through every single one of the close to 900 pages even once?”
      It’s a great book but it’s a bit tedious.

  2. Dang it now there is yet another really expensive book I want to buy. My wife will not be happy. What I really want to know is how can I spend three years traveling around the world?

  3. Andre Friedmann

    He had me at gun. Fabulous bit of provocative writing. Thanks. While those adverbs in the first paragraph sucked major, introducing the gun made finishing the piece worthwhile.

  4. Nifty piece of writing there kiddo. Sounds like an interesting tome. Thanks for making this little corner of the net so interesting to visit.

  5. Looks like a thick book. Someone commented it’s close to 900 pages. If it is (and from the images above, it sure does), the act of flipping through all those pages do complement the feelings the images give off, I believe. Good stuff.

  6. hi johnathan

    great review, thanks for that!

    I can’t make any comment about the book as I’ve not had the chance to spend any time with it, however I visited Taryn Simon’s show at the Tate on a relatively quiet tuesday morning back in October.

    I left with mixed emotions, but the primary one was frustration. I have a feeling that the project is much stronger in book form, and here’s why; The exhibition, while beautifully presented, is impenetrable.

    As you have intimated in your review, the images rely on the accompanying text to grab the viewer and drag you under. At the Tate Show, the huge framed pieces were flanked by the text in a small typeface. There was enough room for 1 person to stand in front of the text to read it. I was fortunate enough to step right in and have the first piece of text to myself. It was thoroughly engaging, but even on a quiet tuesday morning, as I readied myself to move on to the next exhibit (having spend 15-20 minutes on the first one) I saw that every subsequent text had 3-4 people jostling for position.

    Would anyone have the time or patience to consume and decipher this whole show? I doubt it. So for me, in spite of the obvious quality of the work and the fascinating narrative, the exhibition was a failure.

    What’s disappointing is that it wouldn’t have taken much imagination from the Tate curators to have rectified this; There is already an audio tour of the permanent collection at Tate Modern; how hard would it have been to record a narration of the text for each of the exhibits in Taryn Simon’s show?

    Of course all of these problems fall away with the luxury of a book in hand; maybe causing the viewer so much frustration at the show was a deliberate marketing ploy to encourage me (and others) to fork out $125?

    • Hey Ben,
      Thanks for sharing that with those of us stuck in the USA. I’m dying to get over to London one of these days.
      It’s hard to believe that the text was given the short shrift, given it’s importance in understanding the project. I just read that the show is moving to MOMA, so perhaps they’re rectify that?