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The photographic work of Laurie Simmons.

Looking Carefully

The animated look of the subject in Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera) is striking, playful, fun, distant and a bit haunting. Artist Laurie Simmons has staged the subject in a stark environment to emphasize the lifelike quality of this object with legs. The dark floor and gray background are interrupted by only shadows. The line separating the floor from the wall has been carefully placed at one-third from the bottom of the composition. The camera itself is a theatrical costume being worn by an actor. The appearance of this camera with legs is reminiscent of 1930s music-hall reviews with dancers in costumes of objects, or of the dancing cigarette packages of early television commercials.

This dated camera is, no doubt, black metal and plastic. The light source to the right is rather strong, playfully deepening the contrast of dark and light values on the object. The brilliant glow on the camera takes on a life-like energy of its own. The legs, clad in tights, reflect light in a somewhat artificial way, masking true anatomy and creating a barrier between the viewer and the actor. The tilt or bow of the camera animates Jimmy, yet suggests subservience. We arc not facing the lens or eye, which points downward and away from the viewer.

Is Simmons forcing us to consider the person as object in society? The legs are definitely those of an adult while the object's playfulness is somewhat childlike. The addition of arms and hands or a face would have given the object character since people tend to interpret a person's feelings from upper-body movements and facial expressions. The choice to keep these from the viewer was a conscious decision, and gives us a clue that Simmons wanted distance between the viewer and the object. On the other hand, the photograph is quite large, 83 x 47[inches] (211 x 120 cm), confronting the viewer at a nearly life-size level. Is the image playful or haunting? Is it object or human? Is it old-fashioned or new? Is it artificial or real? Is it a social statement or just a theatrical costume? By asking more questions than giving answers, Simmons uses the camera as a tool for inquiry.

Comparing

The photograph of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth by Julia Margaret Cameron was taken 115 years before Laurie Simmons photographed her walking camera. These two women photographers show similar concerns for value and light, presentation of subject, and they both share a desire to leave the viewer with questions left unanswered about the subject. On the other hand, these two photographs reflect two different time periods, and two very different approaches.

Julia Margaret Cameron knew many of the illustrious men and women of late nineteenth-century London. Robert Browning, Charles Darwin and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow were among the famous people she photographed. Her portraits are usually straightforward, with the subject's head filling most of the composition as in the photograph of Mrs. Herbert Duckworth. Cameron's intent is quite clear--to record the inner spirit of the sitter. She softened details and allowed blurring, employing any means to capture the spirit of her subject. Cameron's softened and slightly blurred subject illustrates a popular concept of the time which related photography to painting rather than giving it a recognition of its own.

In comparing the Cameron photograph to Laurie Simmons, image, we see that Simmons has total control over the technical aspect of her photograph. She has set the lights, established the shadows, controlled the angle of her shot and established a psychological wall between the viewer and the animated camera by posing the subject with lens or "face" turned from view. In contrast, Cameron's subject looks squarely at the viewer. Simmons manipulates technology to mask, while Cameron uses it to reveal.

Key Concepts

* Contemporary photographer Laurie Simmons uses dolls and other toys as staged subject matter for her photographs.

* Simmons uses her technical knowledge of the camera to manipulate the light, color and spatial relationships giving her images a sense of skewed reality.

* Julia Margaret Cameron used her camera in a painterly manner reflective of the status of photography during the late nineteenth century. Simmons approaches the media under the societal acceptance of photography as an art form.

* Laurie Simmons leaves the viewer with many unanswered questions about the nature of her images.

* Photographers and other artists can give qualities to inanimate objects that the objects do not actually possess, e.g., mysterious, foreboding, metaphoric, sensual, humorous.

Biography

Laurie Simmons began her photography career in the 1970s and currently lives and works in New York City. Fascinated by dolls and toys, she has used them frequently in various series of works. In an early series, she used small adult dolls and furniture to create interior environments which, at first, seemed to be like memories of childhood play. Her point of view and use of light seemed to magnify the images suggesting a level of reality beyond that of a dollhouse. She later used dolls in scenes of underwater ballet, color-coordinated with environments (a solid yellow doll in a yellow environment), and as tourists in faraway places (photographs of monochromatic dolls superimposed over photos of tourist attractions like the Parthenon).

She has stated that she is not trying to create narrative scenes, but to observe everyday life using photographic elements to give her observations a striking quality. "I realized early on that artifice attracted me to an image more than any other quality. That's what I wanted to see in pictures, particularly my own. I mean artifice in the sense of staging, heightened color and exaggerated lighting, not a surreal or fictive moment."

Her admiration of movie director Alfred Hitchcock can be seen in her use of color, spatial relations and lighting. A slight falseness is a quality she has worked to capture in her photographs. "I'm counting on that wrongness to give the picture its edge. That's what markets the picture. I go for the maximum realism that I can in any given situation and the resulting reality is skewed." Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera) comes from a series of staged photographs which include Walking Purse, Walking House, Walking Birthday Cake and Walking Microphone.

Suggested Activities

The following activities may be adapted for both elementary and secondary students.

* Draw or photograph a still life that has dolls in it. You may wish to create a new reality for the dolls by changing color, value or spatial relationships within the scene.

* Have students locate and pose an object to which doll legs could be attached Students should be prepared to answer such questions as "Why have you chosen this object?" "What pose is best suited for this object?" "Where should the light source be to best give your photography or drawing an ,edge, as Laurie Simmons did with her work?"

* There are many significant women photographers in addition to Laurie Simmons and Julia Margaret Cameron including Berenice Abbott, Imogen Cunningham, Laura Gilpin, Barbara Kruger Cindy Sherman, Dorothea Lange, Eva Rubinstein and Sandy Skoglund. Gather a collection of images from female photographers. Determine what type of subject matter each photographer preferred. Cite one influence on the work of that person and create a list of events that occurred during each phographer's lifetime

* Direct students to Who's Who in American Art to locate the biographical listing for Laurie Simmons. Have them use the Art Index or the Guide to Periodicals to locate reviews of her work. Have each student look up a different contemporary artist in Who's Who in American Art and find out more about that person's current work. Ask students to establish three questions they would most like to ask their artist, and have them attempt to contact the artist or the artist's representative.

* Have the class create a time line of photographic history. Ask them to collect images and place them on or near the appropriate year. Have them write an essay on how the subject matter has changed over time. They should also write about the significance of technical advances such as the introduction of color film.

* While Laurie Simmons might not consider her work narrative, the subjects of her photographs could lend themselves to creative concept interpretation. Using the idea of object and person being closely related, have students write an imaginative story which begins, "If I woke up and discovered I was part camera, I'd . . ."

Resources

Slides of Walking Camera (Jimmy the Camera) and A Beautiful Vision (Mrs. Herbert Duckworth), as well as work by other artists, are available for a fee from the Resource Center at The Saint Louis Art Museum, Forest Park, St. Louis, MO 63110-1380: Telephone (314) 721-0067, ext. 266.

Reviews of Laurie Simmons, work appear in the following: Art News, March, 1990, p. 173-74. Art in America, February, 1990, p. 174. Contemporanea, March, 1990, p. 88. Tema Celeste, April-June, 1990, p. 62. The New York Times, May 29, 1992, p. C28.

Catalogs of Exhibitions:

Laune Simmons, San Jose Museum of Art, October 21-December 30, 1990. Past/Imperfect: Eric Fischel, Vernon Fisher, Laurie Simmons, Walker Art Center: Minneapolis, 1987.

Quotations of Laurie Simmons were taken from an interview by Cindy Sherman published in Laurie Simmons from Panco Publishers, 1987.

Pamela Hellwege is an art educator at McClure High School, Ferguson-Florissant RII School District, St. Louis, Missouri.
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Title Annotation:art lesson
Author:Hellwege, Pamela
Publication:School Arts
Date:May 1, 1994
Words:1547
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