Laurie Simmons is an American artist based out of New York known for her accomplished photographic series and other practices in film that have brought many of her famous images to life. She is a recognized member of the Picture’s Generation, developing a critical dialogue on topics such as identity, politics, and stereotypes that are reflective of the cultural influences of New York in the 1970’s. Her photographic language was established in the late 70’s with her first collection of mature works that included images of curated domestic scenes within the environment of a miniature dollhouse. Her approach to photography is to use the camera as a tool, activating a scene using light and scale and exploring the environment within the boundaries of the lens.
Simmons’ photographic language hinges on her use of primarily female subjects in scenes that call attention to identity and gender stereotypes. All of her subjects are activated by roles that create a dialogue between image reality and viewer reality. By looking at a limited selection of works from her timeline as an artist, we can study the importance of her photography as it exists in the contemporary art world.
Beginning with her early black and white photographs in the late 70’s, Simmons was challenged to capture the relationship between child like objects and their ability to communicate a mature message using miniature dolls within a dollhouse. Various rooms from the dollhouse are photographed in this series and approach stereotypes related to the housewife and the domesticated female icon. Simmons experiments with angles and lighting to create a dream-like state of reality that is carried on in her photographic language throughout her artistic career. The dolls are stoic, frozen and solus in the decorated environment that is shown in a dramatic light and exaggerates the lifelessness of the elements that describe the scene.
The transition from black and white to color is important in any photographer’s career as it sets a stage for new formal and iconographic elements that can be used to enhance the artist’s photographic language. Simmons compares this transition from black and white to color in her photography to the transition made in The Wizard of Oz in that she was able to create a new and enthusiastic world revolving around color. In her previous colorless works, the subject and the background are blended, while the presence of color enhances a lively interaction between the objects.
From observing Pushing Lipstick, we can see that the use of color is responsible for activating the figure within its surroundings. The cultural representation associated with the bright lipstick acts as an oppressive element that works against the identity of the female figure next to it. The scarlet red color of both the doll’s dress and the lipstick is sultry and inviting, descriptive of the stereotypes associated with the housewife culture of America during that time. In this image, we see the doll not as an individual, but as a stereotyped female icon and the dramatic scale of the lipstick as a central figure.
Still experimenting with the doll, Simmons began photographing a new series in the 80’s involving ventriloquist dummies as her subjects. These subjects approached a new focus of human attribution involving the act of communication between speaker and audience. The purpose of these dummies is to create a false sense of being through accessing the cerebral activation of a human, and as a photographer Simmons acts as that agent of activation. The use of these dummies is to filter speech and take the focus away from the creator. In that way, there is an opportunity for the person activating the dummies to speak without any censor. From the images she creates, the viewer interprets the subject with a personality based on how it is curated in the space. Elements such as form, clothes, background, and placement in the frame are all activated by Simmons. Though it lacks a voice, it still has a sense of personality through Simmons’ visual activation.
In the late 80’s, Simmons began creating works that switched the focus away from the mind of the subject and towards the body. This was her Walking and Lying Objects series, featuring various representational objects and establishing an identity by giving them the sense of having absurdly scaled human qualities through the extension of doll legs. The images are set on a dramatic stage, emphasizing the object itself as opposed to the environment it is within.
Objects such as the dollhouse and the gun are meaningful icons that when represented in an image will always carry a synonymous dialogue. This series features many of these objects that Simmons recalls from her suburban life and carry a great deal of importance to an individual’s interpretation of the its meaning. The gun itself is a powerful icon that is used in many scenarios of photography, but typically evokes masculinity and violence. As Simmons’ uses it, it creates dialogue between the image of the female icon and “her” relationship with the power object. We envision it with other female objects such as purses, or lipstick, creating a powerful yet ironic dialogue not often encountered in the representation of a gun. This proves the point of how the meaning of images, no matter how stereotyped, can be changed over time based on our cultural evolution.
Simmons’ 1989 photograph from this series Walking House was recently acquired by The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth making it now a permanent member of their already prestigious photography collection that includes other artists from the Picture’s Generation like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince. This work is just one of many that represents the challenge of social reformation that occurred during the time. Like many artists from the Picture’s Generation, cultural influences played critical roles in shaping the language of the photograph. The identity that previously occupied the figure is replaced by these powerful objects and the dramatic size of them not only replaces identity, but overshadows it altogether.
After creating these series, Simmons used inspiration from her subjects and brought them to life in moving picture. “Music of Regret” (2006) featured many of her iconic images from the the walking objects and talking objects series and created an interaction between them and the viewer. The film was set as a musical written by Simmons that featured various acts that portray scenes of occupation, identity, and affection. This film allowed Simmons to open up her work to a humorous interpretation through song and dance, a theme not often encountered in the severity of her work.
The stage is brought to life in the adaptation of the Walking Objects series as images from Simmons work are shown auditioning against each other for a part in a musical. Each dance is used to represent the characteristic suggested by the object. She envisioned how would a dollhouse choose to dance as opposed to a gun, or a cake.
Part of “Music of Regret” created a love story using inspiration from her ventriloquist dummies. One such dummy was created in her own image, and is represented in life by Meryl Streep. A bond between Streep and a dummy of her liking is represented through affectionate interactions such as song and gaze.
All of “Music of Regret” is available to view online through Salon 94, Simmons’ represented gallery.
In the series Love Doll, Simmons was approached with the challenge of no longer working on a miniature scale, but taking life sized dolls and still creating this relationship between object and environment, now capturing scenes from life as apposed to curated scenes from a set of a dollhouse. The love dolls are bare, lifeless, and open to interpretation when they first arrive. She first met the idea of the love doll in Japan and was inspired to create a photographic series with the idea of bringing these dolls to life through human encounters.
There is a new level of interpretation in the series because audiences are viewing these objects in settings they are already familiar with. The relationship between object and environment is inspired by the infancy of the dolls’ lives. Each interaction is a discovery and calls attention to our own interaction with objects we see on a daily basis. The dolls are lifeless and void of emotion, yet Simmons inspires them with a sense of material fascination.
Following Love Doll, Simmons began creating a series inspired by the Japanese Kigurumi subculture, which she also encountered in Japan. Members of this subculture participate by adorning costume that represents various anime personas. Conducting research for the series introduced Simmons to the internet culture of cosplayers who participate in Kigurumi, where she then found herself connecting with a costume seller in Russia who sold her unique items such as clothing and masks often used as dress in the subculture. Simmons chose live models for this series, a new relationship in her work that allowed her more freedom to direct her subjects. Her relationship with these models was based on the personas they took on dressed as these anime characters, and states she often found herself disappointed upon the removal of costume, exposing the natural human beneath.
This work was so meaningful in Simmons’ career as it captured a moment for the characters to exist between doll and human. Many of her previous works have introduced this idea, but never fully explored it with such a clear execution. Kigurumi is what Simmons was working towards her whole life – the visual relationship between reality and fantasy.
Simmons’ most recent series, which is currently on view at the Jewish Museum in New York, features portraits of real models and differs in representation from the miniature objects used in her previous works. This series, titled How We See, creates a dialogue relating to the “Doll Girl” subculture where people alter their natural appearance using makeup in order to resemble the image of a doll. The photograph is set to portray the traditional high school portrait where the subject uses the opportunity to portray one’s ideal self to the camera and, ultimately, to everyone who sees the image. Simmons’ models are made up and posed in a beautiful representation of their physical self, but even in a series with live models, Simmons still focuses on the element of visual interruption between viewer and subject.
The use of dramatic light and color activate the models and emphasize the exotic details set to portray their ideal selves. The eyes of of the models are absent, replaced with their exaggerated drawn counterparts over closed lids, a technique often seen used in the Doll Girl culture. The identity of these models, though not completely lost, is morphed into a fantasy of one’s own interpretation of their self. Simmons’ selection of models for this series were hired from agencies and featured some who identified as transgendered women. A viewer would not know this by looking at the image itself, but knowing this about the subjects creates an even greater dialogue on how participants of photography use the window of the lens to preserve the altered identity of one’s self.
Simmons’ work has portrayed a powerful dialogue based on critical social issues that reflected the voice of many artists during the 1970’s. As part of the Picture’s Generation, her photographs reflect cultural issues based on identity and stereotypes through the use of subjects like dolls and transgendered models that establish dialogue between image and viewer reality. Though her work always changes, her subjects do not, as each are represented with an element of visual interruption that challenges viewers to interpret their relationship with the image.
Laurie Simmons is currently represented by Salon 94 in New York.
Be sure to visit the Jewish Museum and see How We See, on view now until August 9, 2015.
Last modified: May 9, 2015