June/July/Aug 2013

An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar

Jessica Loudis

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THE COVER OF TARYN SIMON’S newly reprinted 2008 monograph, An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, is unlikely to catch any casual viewer’s eye. Bound in nondescript gray cloth, with its title inscribed in gold lettering over a black background, the book looks like a volume of an encyclopedia or a legal periodical. But inside you’ll find something far less anodyne: a mesmerizing, carefully composed series of photographs whose subjects range from decomposing corpses and quarantined parrots to NASA guesthouses and control rooms of nuclear submarines.

Simon’s America is one of ordinarily inaccessible places and atypical items—KKK offices and Scientology Celebrity Centres, Playboys printed in Braille and vials containing live samples of the HIV virus. Shot in crisp large format in muted tones, the images draw viewers in slowly, first with their cinematic staging and then with details that emerge more gradually. In one photograph of a jury-simulation room, the eye is initially drawn to a security camera in the center of the frame and the reflection of an oval-shaped table in a two-way mirror. Before long, however, we notice the photo’s true subject—faint outlines of human figures on the other side of the glass, gazing spookily back at us. In the absence of such visual punch lines, Simon relies on lengthy captions that let viewers know exactly what they’re seeing. The image above depicts an ephemeral white object that resembles a toppled hot-air balloon wrapped in fog; it is in fact a vessel that contains two dead bodies, those of the wife and mother of cryonics pioneer Robert Ettinger. After detailing the process of freezing loved ones in hopes of eventually granting them eternal life, the text concludes on a wry note: “The [Cryonics] Institute is licensed as a cemetery in the state of Michigan.”

More than five years after its initial release, American Index still offers a fresh way to look at the country, one that departs from the street-shot tradition of Walker Evans and Robert Frank, and fuses the stylized aesthetics of photographers like Gregory Crewdson with the expository ambitions of artists like Trevor Paglen. Simon’s America is one in which inbred white tigers and burning fields in Oregon reveal as much about invisible patterns of labor as industrial landscapes or portraits of gas-station attendants. It’s not the America we usually encounter, but in its strangeness, Simon shows us more about ourselves than we might expect.

Taryn Simon, Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute, Clinton Township, Michigan. This cryopreservation unit holds the bodies of Rhea and Elaine Ettinger, the mother and wife of cryonics pioneer, Robert Ettinger. Robert, the author of "The Prospect of Immortality" and "Man into Superman" is still alive. The Cryonics Institute offers cryostasis (freezing) services for individuals and pets upon death. Cryostasis is practiced with the hope that lives will ultimately be extended through future developments in science, technology, and medicine. When, and if, these developments occur, Institute members hope to awake to an extended life in good health, free from disease or the aging process. Cryostasis must begin immediately upon legal death. A person or pet is infused with ice-preventive substances and quickly cooled to a temperature where physical decay virtually stops. The Cryonics Institute charges $28,000 for cryostasis if it is planned well in advance of legal death and $35,000 on shorter notice, 2004–2007, chromogenic print, 37 1/4 x 44 1/2".