If you’re planning to see the U.S. premiere of Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, be prepared to exert a level of personal endurance akin to that of the photographer over the four-year development of her mammoth photography project. The work, which debuted at Tate Modern last year, chronicles Simon’s world travels and eighteen terrifying or curious scenarios she encountered therein.
Each story traces a different bloodline and its relationship with religion, territory, government, or environment. She presents the stories through three meticulously organized panels: the first a linear arrangement of portraits, the second a list of captions and a few paragraphs explaining the scenario, and the third a more conceptual block of supplementary documents, images, and portraits that serve as footnotes to the overall tale. Nine of these chapters are on view at MoMA through September 3.
Simon has a knack for gaining access to places previously unphotographed and expertly using her camera as a steadfast tool for documenting truth. Themes of injustice, death, and machine-like cycles of life are apparent in her makeshift, precisely organized periodic tables. Viewers encounter subjects including a polygamous healer, test rabbits for a population control virus, children from an underserved Ukrainian orphanage, and a living man whose family declared him dead in order to take over his land. The homogeneous creme background of each portrait erases the context and environment of its subject, emphasizing the details of the individual. Through this painstakingly organized map, Simon tries to trace the components of chance, blood, and fate, hoping to discover some kind of pattern or cause.
The thirty-seven-year-old American photographer created a 773-page book about the project, which offers further insight. A Guggenheim Fellow and graduate of Brown University, Simon’s work focuses on documenting some of the most top-secret, highly restricted areas in the world. She spent days without sleep recording seized items from passengers and mail at the John F. Kennedy Airport for 2010’s Contraband, and unpacked U.S. cases of wrongful conviction in 2003 for her work titled The Innocents. In 2007, she spent four years in research facilities and government offices concealed from the public eye for An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, and the accompanying book chronicled the realities of radioactive waste, a detention center for imported birds, deadly viruses, and a recreational site for death row inmates.