Interview : Laurie Simmons by Amanda Wilkinson
AW I understand you met in 1973, so by 1978 you had known each other for 5 years. Had you taken photographs of each other before, or was this an impromptu idea on the day? Were the photographs taken on the same day in 1978? If so, could you tell me something about that day and how you came to take portraits of each other?
LS I don’t recall the photos being taken on the same day. We sometimes snapped pictures of each other, but I mainly showed up as a model in Jimmy’s photos. Interestingly I don’t know of any photographs of the two of us together. This was obviously way before selfies and though we were both recording our personal lives neither of us had the thought to turn the camera on ourselves when we were together. That is something I definitely regret. Jimmy didn’t put himself in front of the camera very often - at least not in a recognizable way.
AW You mentioned that Jimmy had a collection of over 100 hats. Were the hats in the images taken from his collection and did you choose them for the portraits? And did he choose what you were wearing?
LS I can’t recall why I took portraits of Jimmy in some of his hats that day. He must’ve just been in a playful mood. I’m sure I had my camera and he just grabbed some hats. The portrait of me was probably something I asked him to do. Maybe I needed a portrait for a project or a boyfriend.. I wore that lavender angora sweater in several portraits including one by Jan Groover because I thought it was so difficult to photograph – the edges were so blurry. I had another sweater that was made of multicolored yarn - the kind that goes from one primary color to another. I wore that when I posed for an Alex Katz painting because I thought it would be impossible to paint.
He tended to only shoot me as part of his art unless I asked him to take a picture of me. There were lots of trendy well dressed girls on the scene who just seemed to hang around and get their pictures taken. I was envious of them in a certain way – I thought it might be great to just be someone’s girlfriend or muse. I was a working artist. It honestly never occurred to me that I might be Jimmy’s muse. It felt more to me like a marriage of convenience, but in hindsight I see a different dynamic and realize how much he needed someone like me with both my body type and my lack of self -consciousness and of course my interest in his work. I don’t think he could’ve worked with a model who put vanity before all else. I was cooperative and compliant because I was learning on the job.
Our relationship was definitely transactional on an art level.
AW What facilities did you have in the studio? Did you develop the photographs in a dark room?
LS Jimmy and I had divided up a 200 foot long dark former lingerie factory with windows at each end.
There was a door in the middle that we kept unlocked. We each had our own darkroom. I saw him as a “real” photographer and I was new to the craft so frequently or I should say constantly asked him for help. We used to put ice cubes in the developer in the summer and we shared chemicals and paper.
AW In 1978 you turned to colour photography for the first time with images of the colourful interiors of domestic settings featuring dolls-house furniture. Did Jimmy influence this shift?
My shift was the result of shooting in black and white and realizing that I was seeing everything in color. I wanted to learn about photography and thus the deep dive into shooting developing and printing black and white but my mind was seeing the world as it was and I was choosing props and making set-ups based on color.. That’s why I love the scene when Dorothy gets to Oz and the movie switches to three -strip Technicolor.I felt like that was my life when I started shooting color film in 1978
During this period, Jimmy was making work that was later published in a book titled Submission, with an introduction by William Burroughs. These black-and-white photographs depicted a series of S&M activities staged by Jimmy and his friends. Jimmy went on to make colour photographs the following year that were more playful and humorous, with saturated colour in a suburban setting.
AW Do you think that you in turn may have influenced Jimmy with your feminist investigation of suburban domesticity?
LS I think we influenced each other a lot. I still feel his influence and there are times that I shoot and it’s not until I edit that we say in the the studio “there’s jimmy’s lighting again.” I like to think that he taught me to think more like a photographer and I taught him to think more like an artist. He was able to compartmentalize his work in profound and dramatic ways. He knew what Submission was and he knew it was for a small and particular audience but he had to make those pictures. Given the subject matter they were somewhat lyrical and beautiful but you can feel the photojournalist in there. The color “Suburban” pictures were the place where he felt he could be an artist in dialogue with the contemporary artworld of that time. His bread and butter were the the portraits he did for the Village Voice and the Soho weekly news and for album covers. For that he had to become yet another kind of photographer but he took that work 100 percent seriously as well. In terms of his and my investigation of suburban domesticity – we both came from that. He grew up in a suburb of Atlanta and I grew up in a suburb of New York. Post WWII Suburbia had very distinct characteristics. There were certain superficial values that were nearly sacred – the need for pristine manicured lawns and shiny new cars and bikes and shiny children for that matter. I was raised in a jewish suburb largely - first generation jews - but the performance of ‘white america ‘ was absolutely seamless.
AW In an interview with Jimmy published by Art Press for the Pat Hearn Gallery in 1990, you mentioned how few art photographers there were at the time. Could you expand on that a little, and about the way your work was received in 1978?
LS Well there was a generation of women who picked up a camera or used mechanical printing methods that felt different in scale and intention from what I saw going on in the Photo department of MOMA.
It just seemed to be happening.. And there were men too. It was kind of an intuitive thing - even some painters like David Salle and Walter Robinson and Eric Fischl seemed to be working from photography.
And of course women like Barbara Kruger , Nancy Dwyer, Gretchen Bender, Julia Wachtel, Cindy Sherman, Sarah Charlesworth, Silvia Kolbowski and a bit later Lorna Simpson and Carrie Mae Weems and so many others and then some guys like Richard Prince, Frank Majori, James Welling, James Casebere, Chris Williams. The list feels long now but in the late 70’s it felt like a small split from the art history narrative I knew. The other histories seemed so big.
AW Jimmy took many portraits of his friends in the punk scene at the time and has said that he didn’t differentiate between these photographs and his other work – both were drawn from his life and were a part of his art-making. Did your work also draw from personal aspects of your life? – your experience as a woman artist, for instance?
LS Yes! My work was 100 percent drawn from my personal life but I had a hard time admitting it then and felt the need to describe it as a generalized shared cultural experience – at least a certain kind of post WWII American experience.. But then maybe my parents aspirations to lead an ‘American Life’ – a life that looked and felt like what you watched on television or saw described in LOOK and LIFE magazines made the experience of my life feel more general or not wholly like my own.
In the many years that you shared a studio with Jimmy was there a particular overlap in the work you both were making? - or a shared interest that was a regular topic for discussion?
Our discussions were more about formal stuff - like the way things looked , the way they were made, lighting etc. We tended to talk about the challenges of getting our shots rather than what they were about. I always felt like Jimmy was ahead of me photographically so I tended to try to do things the way he did … I copied his cameras, film, lighting etc. There was a moment when Jimmy started making these images called 'Scanographs' which were actually digitalized photos printed on canvas to look like paintings - something that's very commonly done today. I was furious with him at the time because I saw it as a solely financial move… Trying to make a painting out of a photo which of course could potentially sell for much more. I felt like he was abandoning photography. Now I think it was pure genius
With thanks to Laurie Simmons and her studio for all the help with this presentation