NEW YORK ARTIST LAURIE SIMMONS STARTED SNAPPING MINIATURE FURNITURE FRESH OUT OF ART SCHOOL. THE GOAL WAS TO GET WORK AS A COMMERCIAL PHOTOGRAPHER, BUT INSTEAD THE PIECES WERE THE BEGINNINGS OF A BODY OF WORK THAT MAKES SIMMONS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN ARTISTS WORKING TODAY. HER SOMETIMES-DREAMY, SOMETIMES-KITSCH, SLIGHTLY UNSETTLING SCENES SAY SOMETHING PROFOUND ABOUT AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT THE MOTHER OF TWO, AND WIFE OF PAINTER CARROLL DUNHAM, NOW EXPRESSES HERSELF IN THE MEDIUMS OF FILM, MUSIC AND FASHION TOO.
TEXT Kirsten Matthew
DIRTY: CAN YOU REMEMBER ONE OF THE FIRST TIMES YOU EVER USED A CAMERA?
LAURIE SIMMONS: My father bought three Kodak Brownie cameras with neck straps for my sisters and me. In those days taking up photography practically became the definition of a hobby – the amateur photography craze was heating up in the early 60′s. I remember shooting around the back yard and I remember seeing my little black and white snapshots with the perfect white borders but I can’t remember how the photos got developed. I guess my father took care of those kinds of things.
D: WHAT WAS IT LIKE EXPLORING PHOTOGRAPHY AS A MEDIUM DURING THE 70S, WHEN THE INSTANT GRATIFICATION OF DIGITAL PHOTOGRAPHY WAS NOT YET ACCESSIBLE?
LS: Well, compared to everything else, photography seemed about as instant as it got – particularly given that Polaroid had come out with small sheets of instant film in the mid-60′s. Photography was so much faster than painting or drawing or making sculpture. Of course digital was unimaginable; you can’t picture what doesn’t exist.
D: WHEN & HOW EXACTLY DID THE EXPLORATION OF MINIATURES IN YOUR WORK BEGIN?
LS: I thought when I first took pictures of small rooms with miniature furniture in the mid-70′s, that people would be fooled and think they were real places. I think (contrary to what some have posited) that I was actually very insensitive to scale.
D: WAS THERE SOMETHING IN THE EXPLORATION OF SMALL SCALE ENVIRONMENTS THAT LEAD YOU TO BEGIN EXPLORING THE IDEA OF PUPPETS/DUMMYS?
LS: It absolutely was a progression from spaces that were utterly fake to dolls and puppets and dummies and anything that mimicked the human form. I was and still am very fussy about what I shoot. I like plastic stuff, machine-made, mass-produced, from the middle of the last century to the present. I don’t like handmade artsy-craftsy stuff (with the exception of the dummies). I never was interested in playing with dolls but I really like the way they look when I shoot them.
D: YOUR WORK ALSO EXPLORES IDEAS OF FEMININITY AND THE ROLES WOMEN PLAY. WOULD YOU SAY THAT YOU ARE A FEMINIST?
LS: I’ve been asked that question a lot. When that question actually seemed relevant (no offense), I was more concerned about what it meant to not be a feminist. Did it mean I didn’t expect to show in a gallery with men? Did it mean I didn’t expect equal pay for equal work? Did it mean I would rush home early from work to make my boyfriend dinner in full makeup and a French maid costume?
I think the most important result of my generation’s relationship to Feminism is that our daughters really do believe that there are no limitations imposed upon them by their gender. I am grateful for that, but I understand that this is a result of a certain kind of privilege and education. That said, there is an enormous amount of work left to do worldwide on behalf of women. No one should forget that.
D: WHEN DID YOU FIRST DECIDE TO WORK WITH MOTION FILM?
LS: I expressed a desire to work in film in my journals in 1972, but I didn’t work in film until 2006.
D: IN 2006 YOU MADE AN AMAZING FIRST FILM, “THE MUSIC OF REGRET”, STARRING MERYL STREEP. WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO WORK WITH STREEP, AFTER SO MANY YEARS OF USING INANIMATE OBJECTS TO COMMUNICATE SO MUCH?
LS: Well if you’re looking for a human vessel to communicate your creative vision, I highly recommend Meryl Streep. She’s really good.
D: YOU’VE WORKED ON SOME AMAZING PROJECTS FOR THE FASHION INDUSTRY. HAVE YOU ALWAYS HAD AN INTEREST IN FASHION? AT WHAT POINT DID FASHION BEGIN AFFECTING YOUR WORK?
LS: Yes, I’ve always had an interest in fashion. I figured out at a very young age that it was the fastest way to broadcast the inner you, and I so badly needed to reveal my uniqueness (or so I thought) in a post-World War II suburban environment that celebrated uniformity. I assumed I would be a fashion illustrator and I kind of accidentally ended up in a serious fine arts program because frankly I didn’t understand the difference between commercial and fine art (probably a good thing), and I decided I’d rather go to school in Philadelphia than Brooklyn. It was all very random. The projects I’ve done since then are a result of my interest in fashion design – particularly designers like Thakoon and Peter Jensen and Rei Kawakubo, who think and work like artists.
D: IT’S EVIDENT, EVEN IN YOUR EARLY WORK, THAT YOU HAVE AN INTEREST IN GRAPHICS AND PATTERNS. WHAT WAS IT LIKE PUTTING THAT SENSIBILITY TO USE WORKING WITH THAKOON?
LS: Thakoon approached me about our collaboration. I shot the images for him – a series of red roses on white metal legs. He created the patterns and made all the decisions about fabric, repeat, etc. I only knew enough to know his idea to make fabrics from my images was a good one.
D: DO YOU STILL SHOOT FILM?
LS: Yes I do still shoot film, which is odd because I’m one of the more digitally literate people I know, especially for my age). I use it because I blow prints up to a fairly large size (for photographs) and I’ve yet to be convinced that a digital image translates as well as film to a 7 x7 foot photo. My lab prints everything digitally and I store scans as well as slides and negatives. I’ll have to stop shooting film soon because soon there will be no more film.
D: MOST PEOPLE KNOW YOU AS A PHOTOGRAPHER/FILMMAKER AND ALSO FOR YOUR WORK IN FASHION. WHAT OTHER MEDIUMS DO YOU WORK IN?
LS: When I made “The Music of Regret” in 2006, my friend Michael Rohatyn composed the most beautiful music. We needed lyrics and I decided I couldn’t trust the melodies to anyone else so I wrote the lyrics. It’s one of my proudest achievements. I actually got a piano and I’m just waiting until we can work together again. Also, my daughter Lena Dunham just shot her second feature called “Tiny Furniture.” She cast me as ‘the mother’ and I liked acting a lot. It was kind of scary to be so engaged in something new. Oddly, the space of acting felt very similar to being in the studio – time passes differently.
D: ARE YOU WORKING ON ANYTHING AT THE MOMENT?
LS: I spent much of last summer in Japan with my daughters and came back with a magnificently beautiful, hyper realistic, life size Japanese sex doll. I’m shooting her now.
D: HOW DOES HAVING AN ARTIST FOR A HUSBAND INFLUENCE YOU?
LS: Well, it saves me, because he understands better than most what happens to artists when they’re not working. The majority of my problems can be solved by going into the studio.
D: WHO/WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL INSPIRED?
LS: My husband – who is so very clear about his priorities and his path as a painter. My daughters who, though very young, already have strong, clear voices and aren’t afraid of working all night. People who survive unimaginable horrors and regroup. People who rush to help them. And Music: Music can make me change my mind about anything.
D: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR?
LS: I think I’m funny because I make my best friends and family laugh a lot (both intentionally and unintentionally). I’m more serious and shy away from my family and close friends (like many basically shy people I’ve trained myself to be very social, but it’s not natural to me). My daughters, particularly Lena Dunham, are so hysterically funny that I’m practically mute around them until I suddenly laugh so hard I lose it.
D: IF YOU HAD NOT BEEN A VISUAL ARTST, YOU PROBABLY WOULD HAVE BECOME __.
LS: An actress for sure.
DO YOU WATCH TELEVISION?
LS: So much it’s embarrassing but I tell myself:
1. That’s where the good writing is.
2. That’s where the best political satire is (plus Rachel Maddow).
3. I have to understand how the RIGHT sees it (Fox).
4. I need to check in with the national zeitgeist via reality shows – “The Biggest Loser”, “Celebrity Rehab” and “American Idol”.
6. I need to periodically have a Sarah Silverman, Larry David, Wendy Williams fix.
7. Our family does movies and TV instead of sports.
I don’t watch anything regularly but when I’m ready we’ll tear through entire box sets of “The Wire”, “Veronica Mars”, “Swingtown”, “Deadwood”, “Prime Suspect” or more recently “Red Riding” on VOD.
D: WHAT’S THE LAST GOOD BOOK YOU READ?
LS: I just finished Francine du Plessix Gray’s Them: a Memoir of Parents. It’s beautifully written, shocking, and one wonders how this incredible writer survived her childhood with this uber-glamourous, narcissistic, often shallow Mom and Dad. It may even momentarily make you appreciate your own parents.
D: IF THE OBJECTS IN THE OVAL OFFICE, ON PRESIDENT OBAMA’S DESK, WERE TO COME TO LIFE AND GROW LIMBS, WHAT WOULD THEY DO TOGETHER?
LS: Are you asking me this because I photograph objects on legs or do you ask everyone this question? I think I would just like to have one of President Obama’s pencils or something. I’m that big of a fan.