“We live in a blazingly consumer-oriented society, where the things around us control us.”
“The idea of an object with legs that could dance or move was always very intriguing to me,” said Laurie Simmons of her 1989 photograph Walking House. “It was very important to make this series human scale,” she went on, so that viewers could ”experience what one might feel like if we morphed with the objects around us.” In Simmons’s photographs, houses walk, and so do pastries, handbags, and a host of other objects. People’s possessions take on agency. As Simmons herself put it, “we live in a blazingly consumer-oriented society, where the things around us control us.”
Simmons’s understanding of American consumerism was shaped by the suburbs—full of mass-produced appliances, automobiles, and furniture—that sprung up after World War II. Born in 1949, Simmons’s formative years were spent on Long Island, surrounded by homes much like the one pictured in Walking House. This period saw economic expansion that ushered in unprecedented material prosperity for the middle class, but it also enforced a potent impulse to conformity. Imagine a familiar scene from any suburban tract house: a kitchen full of anodyne, impersonal surfaces. The woman of the house peers into an open refrigerator; behind her is a table laden with food. The scene has a nostalgic beauty, but its appeal is wholly simulated: the woman is a doll and the room around her a carefully constructed miniature environment. This is just one of many “interiors” that Simmons staged and shot in the late 1970s, only a few years after she graduated from the Tyler School of Art and settled in New York City. This body of work, which brought Simmons to public attention, reveals the uncanny superficiality of suburban life by using photography to deceive rather than accurately report the facts.
Simmons’s early work treats the domestic environment as a distinctly female space, but one where artificiality casts doubt on the reliability of conventional gender roles. A decade later, Simmons’s “Walking Objects,” with their elegant, bare or stocking-clad legs, similarly take aim at omnipresent media images of women transformed into sexualized objects. Her recent series titled How We See is no less incisive. Here, Simmons photographed fashion models that have been made up and attired to resemble dolls—in a particularly disquieting touch, the oversized, luminous eyes of these women are painted onto their closed eyelids. Simmons’s attention to male identity is equally sensitive to questions of convention and superficiality. One image from 1985 is barely legible as a person—using a microscope, Simmons and Allan McCollum photographed a tiny figurine used to populate model trains—but a shirt and tie, the most generic attire of an urban working man, is clearly visible.
Ultimately, however, Simmons is drawn to a different kind of artificial male figure: the ventriloquist’s dummy. In the mid 1980s and 1990s, she produced several series of photographs that use these articulated dolls to explore masculine experience and self-presentation. Years later, a film Simmons directed in 2006 would prominently feature the same dummies alongside a lead performance by Meryl Streep. Like the domestic interior, the motif of ventriloquism speaks to Simmons’s suburban childhood: “I kept returning to the image of an early, almost pre-memory Christmas present given to my older sister. It was a ventriloquist doll…. I feel as though we spent the better part of our childhood trying to talk without moving our lips.” This autobiographical subtext came to the fore in 1993, when Simmons commissioned a ventriloquist’s dummy in her own likeness. In photographs that depict this doll, the confusion of object and person, as well as reality and illusion, reaches new heights, suggesting that even Simmons’s artistic self-fashioning cannot fully escape the culture of artificiality and pretense we inhabit.
Benjamin Clifford, 12-Month Intern, The Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women’s Fund.