American Photographer and Filmmaker
New York City
Summary of Laurie Simmons
Laurie Simmons played a significant role in exploring the image and expectations of women in the post-war United States, using photographs centered around dolls and the domestic sphere to quietly subvert familiar models of feminine identity. Simmons was heavily influenced by her suburban childhood, often drawing from her own memories to create a visual universe characterized by a sense of the uncanny created through combinations of the familiar and unfamiliar posed to provoke, rather than to answer, questions about relationships between play, the domestic sphere and sexuality. After establishing herself as a photographer, Simmons used film as a means of further exploring issues of character; she has recently begun working with life-size figures taken from subcultures based around different types of dolls, allowing her work to develop in relation to changed understanding and use of women and toys in the twenty-first century.
- In focusing on inanimate objects, such as dolls or furniture, Simmons challenges the viewer's sense of power, giving the inanimate objects life and the ability to return the gaze, challenging objectification. Simmons' work can be seen as defying male traditions of viewing in the way through borrowing from established modes of representation and subverting them.
- Simmons' work draws upon her childhood in postwar suburbia in order to explore the difficulties that lay beneath the image of the United States as promising domestic bliss through conformity. Simmons often uses children's toys as tools to reconsider the postwar celebration of the nuclear family.
- Simmons uses photography to recorde and communicate scenes that she constructs, rather than as an end in itself. Simmons is attentive to constructing the worlds that exist within her images, often designing dolls and building sets, influenced by the Conceptual use of the snapshot, a form of image taken by an amateur, to communicate information to an audience.
- Simmons distinguished herself from other members of the Pictures Generation through her use of nostalgic imagery associated with the home. Simmons' work probes the messages that are passed through families, rather than employing the mass-media aesthetic for which the group became known.
Progression of Art
Sink / Ivy Wallpaper
This photograph shows a dollhouse sink set at an angle to, and casting a shadow on, wallpaper patterned with leaves and lines. The sink is positioned at the center of the photograph, overlapping with an intersection between the lines of the wallpaper and is framed by enormous leaves, on the wallpaper, that draw attention to the ambiguities of scale within the image. These leaves are as large as the sink itself and the faucets and support for the sink overwhelm the small basin, which is filled with water.
Simmons considered Sink/Ivy Wallpaper to be her first mature work. This image simultaneously alludes to the traditions of fine art photography, through the use of black and white film rather than color, and to the snapshot, through the placement of the sink at the centre of the frame. The camera is used to create an illusion of reality, rendering the sink lifelike whilst remaining self-conscious, with the menacing scale of the wallpaper's leaves drawing attention to the ways in which the image is constructed, representing a sink in a performative manner. Simmons has spoken of her own interest in photographing the miniature sink as connected to ideas of memory, time and space; this sense of skewed proportion can be seen as mirroring the distortions of memory or as suggestive of the confining nature of suburban life.
Gelatin silver print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Untitled (Woman Standing on Head)
Untitled (Woman Standing on Head) shows a doll in a miniature kitchen, complete with countertops, sink, stove and refrigerator. In the centre of the image, a doll clad in the dress and high heels of a suburban housewife, with neatly bobbed hair, is doing a handstand on the tiles, surrounded by miniature plates and cutlery strewn across the floor. This is the most extreme of a series of images taken by Simmons showing the doll in various positions, including sitting at the table and standing in the corner, around the kitchen.
In Untitled (Woman Standing on Head), as in the series' other images, this doll is alone in an everyday domestic setting. The positioning of the camera above, looking down on the scene from an angle, creates a sense of claustrophobia and the image offers no explanation for the odd behaviour of the doll, who can be read as hysterical in her senseless subversion of her body, which mirrors the way in which the image itself quietly questions expectations of women in mid-century domestic settings. Simmons' use of black and white, with strong tonal contrasts, distances the viewer from the image's action and is suggestive of film noir, heightening the sense of the figure's alienation and the scene's uncanniness.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
In this black and white photograph, at the centre of the frame stands a revolver pistol that has been attached at its base to a pair of female doll legs. Wires that help the hybrid doll-gun figure stay upright are only faintly visible. The figure is harshly spotlit, and just behind, its own dark, sharp shadow is visible against the plain light-colored backdrop.
This work comes from Simmons' Objects on Legs series, which seeks to question and critique the role of women in society. In the series, many consumer objects, including miniature dollhouses, cakes, guns, purses, cameras, and musical instruments are perched atop shapely feminine legs, sometimes standing, sometimes reclining. The simplicity of these images leaves them open to interpretation. This combination of female legs with a revolver, a weapon which is generally understood as a male object (even as a symbol of the male phallus) creates a bizarrely gendered object which is both alluring and dangerous. Or perhaps we can read the image as a commentary on, and reaction against, violence against women. However, Simmons explains that "When I made that picture in the early 90s I wasn't really thinking about guns and violence. I was thinking about a woman character in a film noir world who put it in her purse, it was more about a caricature who was a gun toting strong woman, a Raymond Chandler kind of character, it was very romantic. Now my friend from New York, who is very active against gun violence, wants to use it as an edition to sell to raise money and consciousness about gun control and gun violence, something I really care about and think about."
As in much of Simmons' work, this image confronts, upsets, and confuses accepted notions of binary relationships (such as male and female). It also follows her trend of playing with scale. The images in this series were presented at life-size, with some prints measuring seven feet tall. Thus viewers of the photographs are faced with inanimate hybrid objects that are the same size as real people, creating a discomforting experience.
Gelatin silver print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Café of the Inner Mind: Men's Room
This color photograph features three male ventriloquist dummies, dressed in suits, gathered in a communal bathroom. The three dummies each have thought bubbles located above their heads containing images of bodies. The dummy on the far left, positioned beside a toilet and staring out of the frame, on a diagonal, is accompanied by the backsides of four naked women, standing close together, shown in black and white. The dummy at the center, positioned as if walking away from the urinal beside him, is shown with a bubble featuring the naked buttocks of a tanned and muscular man with his hands on his hips. The bubble on the far right, showing three muscular women in a circle, naked with long hair whipping around them, is above a dummy that has turned away from a sink and mirror and toward the viewer.
Simmons' interest in ventriloquist dummies, sprang from childhood memories of ventriloquism shows on television in the 1950s, had been developing throughout the 1980s, when she spent time at the Vent Haven Museum in Kentucky, home to a large collection of these figures. Café of the Inner Mind is a culmination of Simmons' earlier explorations.
In using these dummies, Simmons' encourages the viewer to consider the relationship between ventriloquism and masculinity, considering the ways in which these dummies allow men to speak through surrogates, evading responsibility, and the myriad of male relationships, paternal and fraternal, homosocial and homosexual, that are provoked by partnerships between vent and dummy. Simmons had seven identical dummies, including those used in this photograph, created to match those she remembered from her youth, and designed sets of clothing with subtle variations, evoking issues of conformity and individual identity that are negotiated through choices relating to dress. In matching the dummies with images, rather than words, Simmons' work subtly alludes to her own subversion of this relationship, with the visual artist herself acting as the dummy's vent, providing clichéd images of male fantasy, taken from pornographic magazines, that draw the audience to consider the ways in which, historically, the sexual fantasies of women have been constructed and policed by the male imagination.
Cibachrome print - Private Collection
Room Underneath (Red)
Room Underneath (Red) shows the lower half of a seated woman's body. The woman's knees are bent and her feet, clad in black ballet slippers, are positioned apart from one another; her pink and white skirts, lined and embroidered with a decorative border, fall around her body and rest just below her knees. This position allows the viewer to see beneath her dress and the angle of the camera, between her legs at the level of the calves, shows a small domestic interior, with an arrangement of table, rug and red leather sofa and armchair beneath a painting with a gilded frame at the center of the room, the center of the woman's body and the center of the photograph itself.
This image challenges the association of femininity with the domestic realm, taking this link to a logical extreme by replacing the structure of the house with the body and clothing of a woman. The placement of the red interior between the legs of a woman, spread as they would be in sexual intercourse or in childbirth, suggests links between female sexuality, reproduction and the home, with the dramatic lighting and outsized scale of the woman emphasizing female power and creating a sense of threat. Room Underneath (Red) can be linked to Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde (1866), a famously-shocking Realist painting centered on a woman's abdomen and genitals, clearly visible between splayed legs. The subtly elevated skirt, showing the room only to the camera, plays with the audience's expectations, raising questions as to whether it is the body or societal constructs that are shocking.
Duraflex print - Baldwin Gallery
The Love Doll/Day 30 (Meeting)
This photograph shows two female dolls in a light-filled living room, one of whom sits on a white couch and the other of whom stands, facing toward the camera, with her hand on the back of the couch. The floors are wooden and the dolls are surrounded by a number of objects, including blue and white vases in the foreground, black and white cushions on the couch and large cylindrical lamps beside a window in the background. The seated doll is modelled after a Caucasian woman, with wavy brown hair, while the standing doll is modelled after an Asian woman and has black hair with a fringe across her forehead. Both women wear cream-colored silk slips and both look toward, though not at, the camera, their eyes angled downward.
The dolls that Simmons used in this image were sold as lifelike, and life-size, sex toys. Simmons first encountered them on a trip to Japan, purchasing one and ordering another several months later. Simmons used her own house, in Cornwall, NY, almost as a life-size doll's house for this project, taking hundreds of photographs of the dolls in various domestic settings. The Love Doll/Day 30 (Meeting) does not focus on the dolls as sex objects, but depicts them as multi-faceted; their positioning, suggestive of a film still, suggests a narrative that remains inaccessible to the viewer, while their facial expressions, with their eyes fixed on the floor, suggest that the dolls are deep in thought, psychologically unavailable to the viewer. At the same time, however, Simmons does not hide the sexual purpose of these dolls, with the nipples and crotch of the doll in the foreground clearly visible though the thin fabric of the dress. In this, the dolls come to seem like real women, performing a role as they go about everyday life; their place in society is constructed by erotic desires, but the viewer is given a sense of the ways in which this practice of viewing the female body strips women of agency and inner life. This sense of symmetry is heightened by the way Simmons displays the photographs; the images are printed at a large scale, so that the dolls retain their human stature.
Pigmented inkjet print - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Brunette / Red Dress / Standing Corner
This photograph shows a female figure, with the head of a doll, featuring large, cartoon-like eyes and small eyebrows, ears and mouth, standing close to the corner of the room, framed in the centre of the image. The figure has long, straight hair, parted in the middle and brown, and is dressed entirely in red latex, which has been fashioned into a sleeveless minidress, a pair of gloves and thigh-high boots. Her arms reach diagonally backward, her hands touching the walls, which are pale blue with a decorative frieze running across the corner at the level of the figure's chest. There are blue valence curtains at the tops of two windows, only one of which is visible, cropped by the right side of the frame, and the carpet at the base of the figure is grey and textured; the aesthetic mimics that of a dollhouse and the scale of the doll and environment is not immediately clear.
This image can be seen as an extension of Simmons' curiosity about the use of dolls by adults within particular subcultures and a further exploration of what life-size dolls reveal about humanity. The figure in this image initially appears as a doll, but the name of the series from which it is taken, Kigurumi, Dollers, reveals that it is a person wearing a doll's head, drawn from the tradition of kigurumi, in which participants engage in role-play while wearing masks or costumes, sometimes going out in public whilst in character. In Brunette / Red Dress / Standing Corner, it is difficult to discern whether the figure is doll or human and the individual's identity is subsumed by that of the costume, suggesting the wearer, rather than performing, comes to inhabit the persona built through their attire, challenging the idea of a real, rather than visually constructed, self. Simmons designed the masks for the figures she photographed in this series, but allowed the personalities to develop based on the models that shed used; the large eyes, accentuated by the degree to which the chin is held toward the chest, and the hands that reach for the walls emphasise the figure's fragility and vulnerability, while the latex hints at a sexual identity aligned with the fetish community, but it is unclear to the viewer whether it is the personality of the doll, the unknown model or something constructed by the photographer herself that is being recorded in the shot, heightening the sense of slippage in identity that is made possible by the conventions of the subculture.
Pigmented inkjet print - Private Collection
Biography of Laurie Simmons
Laurie Simmons was born on the outskirts of New York City, in the beachside neighborhood of Far Rockaway, as the second of three daughters to a dentist and a housewife. Simmons spent much of her childhood in her father's dentistry office, attached to the house, reading Life and Look and watching tropical fish in the waiting room. The family were financially comfortable and had an active cultural life; Simmons has described her mother, Dorothy Simmons, as "an enabler, a housewife of her time," making it possible for her father, Samuel Ira Simmons, to pursue his interests in sculpture, comedy and music in the evenings and on weekends.
Simmons' parents nurtured her interest in art, which was clear by the time she attended kindergarten, where she announced to her class that she was going to be an artist. Simmons spent considerable time drawing and her parents bought her first camera, a Brownie, when she was six, updating this as new versions of the camera became available. Simmons was close to her sisters, but felt out of place in elementary school, where she was punished for her enthusiasm by frequent banishment from the classroom.
The family moved to Great Neck, on Long Island, prior to Simmons' teenage years, and many of Simmons' artistic influences can be traced to this period of her life. Her father was proud to own their four-bedroom house, an imitation Tudor with half-timber walls, in an extremely affluent suburban town. As a first generation American, with parents from Russia, to be part of Great Neck's "perfectly assimilated Jewish community," as Simmons describes it, was a sign of success. For Laurie Simmons, however, the conformity demanded of a suburban teenager was "pure hell" and, as a student who was neither cheerleader nor National Merit Scholar, she longed to leave. The visual and psychological force of suburbia has stayed with Simmons throughout her life.
By the end of high school, Simmons had begun to rebel, spending her weekends in Manhattan, smoking pot and hanging out at Café Wha? in Greenwich Village. As an aspiring art student, Simmons was unconcerned with academic achievement, graduating in the bottom quarter of her high school class, but was devastated by her rejection from the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, in 1967, she told her parents she was visiting a friend's ranch in upstate New York, but instead left for Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco with her boyfriend, one of 100,000 people who arrived for what became known as the Summer of Love. Simmons' parents ultimately persuaded her to return and consider the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia and the Pratt Institute in New York, both of which had accepted her applications.
Education and Early Training
Simmons chose to study at the Tyler School of Art, but found that it was a very traditional school and she, lacking technical skills, was told by a teacher that she could not be an artist. Simmons studied photography briefly at Tyler, but largely dismissed it as an art form, focusing on painting and drawing. It was in 1969, spending her junior year in Rome, that Simmons felt her "world opened up," allowing her to see Renaissance paintings and hear music in Catholic churches, explore Italian fashion and café culture, and take short trips to other nearby countries. Simmons began working with dolls and doll parts while in Rome, casting these in fiberglass to create works she described as "like scarified babies uncovered from an archaeological site." Simmons' return to Philadelphia was, after Italy, a disappointment, and she moved to a commune in upstate New York after her graduation in 1971. She was, while there, heavily influenced by the feminism of a childhood friend living on another nearby commune and by the discovery of a toy store in the Catskills that was going out of business, allowing her to purchase wallpaper and toys that triggered her own childhood memories. This combination of influences led Simmons to consider the disjunction between expectations for women represented by dolls and the freedom that women were pursuing, along with ways in which the mind used memory as a tool for understanding this contradictory experience.
Simmons spent only a short period of time on the commune, returning to Europe with a boyfriend, intending to drive from Amsterdam to Afghanistan. The pair bought a used Citroën 2CV and Simmons documented the trip with a 35mm Yashica camera. In Turkey, overwhelmed by the heat, they decided to return to the United States, where they quickly broke up. At this point, Simmons decided to move to New York City and commit to her art practice. She arrived in 1973 and quickly encountered contemporary art that had been overlooked in her conservative education, discovering Conceptual art, film and performance art and learning about cheap materials and techniques. These discoveries opened up Simmons' mind to the use of photography as an artistic medium, but led her to worry that her images would be seen as lacking intellectual rigor.
Simmons had, during art school and in Europe, been supported by her parents, but they cut her off financially after her move to New York City, leading her to take a number of jobs that included painting houses and applying wallpaper. She applied for a job photographing toys for a catalogue. She did not get this job, but continued to photograph miniature rooms in her own time and began, in 1976, to take the photographs of dolls' houses for which she would become known. In 1980, Simmons secured a job editing covers for Mademoiselle, which increased her confidence in her photographic intuition. Throughout this period, Simmons shared an apartment with Jimmy DeSana, a photographer known for his brightly colored and explicit images of contorted bodies. DeSana built a darkroom in the loft and taught Simmons to process her own black-and-white prints.
In the early 1980s, Simmons began dating Carroll Dunham, an abstract painter she had known for several years. Their acquaintance had begun through their mutual admiration of one another's work. Dunham showed Simmons' photographs to a friend who worked at Artists Space, leading to Simmons' show at the gallery in 1979. At Artists Space, Simmons met Cindy Sherman, who was working as a receptionist, and the two artists felt an instant affinity; both were making work which came to be known as "setup photography," constructing intimate tableaux which they then photographed. While neither had been included in the Pictures exhibition staged at Artists Space in 1977, they soon came to be identified as key members of The Pictures Generation alongside artists including Barbara Kruger, John Baldessari and Sherrie Levine, sharing an interest in mass media influenced by both Conceptual and Pop Art. Simmons and Dunham continued their relationship, marrying in 1983 and having their first child, Lena, two years later, prompting a period of post-partum depression. Their second child, Grace, was born in 1992.
Simmons' work was acquired by major museums, including the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney, in the early 1990s. The Baltimore Museum of Art gave Simmons her first retrospective in 1997, which received positive reviews. She continued to use photography and dolls to explore concepts of gender and memory and began to experiment with collage and film. In 2006, Simmons directed her first film, The Music of Regret, a miniature musical in which the characters from Simmons' earlier photographic series are brought to life by the Alvin Ailey 2 dancers, interacting with a character based on the artist played by Meryl Streep. Simmons' interest in interactions between humans and dolls continued with her discovery of Japanese doll subcultures, including Teenettes and Kirugumi, around which she began to develop work in 2009.
In 2016, Simmons directed and starred in a feature-length film, My Art, playing an aging New York artist whose art practice reconsiders iconic female characters in film history. Simmons has also recently begun to work with living models, most notably in her 2014 series Kigurumi, Dollers, exploring people who develop connections through adopting doll identities, and her 2015 series How We See, which explores a subculture in which women attempt to remake themselves to resemble dolls through sparkling, lifelike eyes painted on closed eyelids.
The Legacy of Laurie Simmons
Simmons' use of dolls to explore prescribed gender roles and representations of femininity has opened up space in which other feminist artists can work, facilitating the legitimacy of styles of cultural critique that do not fit within masculine molds. Her interest in domesticity has been influential to artists including Laure Tixier, who has created work exploring different types of houses internationally with reference to the language of the dollshouse, while her focus on femininity can be seen in the work of Isabel Magowan, who uses photography as a lens to explore girlhood in relation to ballet. Stacy Leigh and Martine Gutierrez have both drawn from Simmons' work in their own explorations of sex dolls in relation to emotion and humanity.
Simmons has additionally influenced her children, both of whom work in creative fields and have collaborated with her. Her eldest daughter, Lena Dunham, was catapulted to fame through her 2010 film Tiny Furniture, which loosely fictionalized life in Simmons' Tribeca loft, where much of it was filmed. Simmons played a fictionalized version of herself in this film and her own involvement with the arts community facilitated the film's distribution. Her second child, Grace, has continued Simmons' advocacy of feminist issues through her work as a writer and activist. Simmons has taught at Yale and Columbia Universities and her influence on photography graduates at these schools is likely to reveal itself further in the coming decades.