Laurie Simmons began experimenting with photography in the early 1970s; today her work, which was foundational for both feminist and post-conceptual photography, continues to push the boundaries of her field. Simmons earned her B.F.A. from Temple University뭩 Tyler School of Art in 1971 and was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 1984. Her photographs, characterized by her own distinctive, hand-built sculptures and sets, are held by numerous museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Walker Art Center, and The Stedlijk Museum, Amsterdam. Simmons currently lives in New York City.
How did you first get interested in photography?
I did not study photography in art school. I graduated in 1971; photography wasn뭪 considered art. I took one course on it and walked out the first day because I thought it wasn뭪 art. When I came to New York it was like a whole new world was opened--I felt like everything going on in New York had been kept secret from me. I was so excited by what I saw--conceptual art, process art, photography being used to document, video, filmmaking, and then I was told painting was, dead, dead, dead. I had no idea until I got there. I kept focusing on the photograph as the means of documentation and as an artwork in itself. Two things attracted me: it seemed really vital, and it didn뭪 have the baggage of art history attached to it. It seemed like an area that was wide open. I was very conscious that I was a woman, and an artist, and I didn뭪 want to be specifically a woman artist--I didn뭪 want to be marginalized and I didn뭪 want to compete with the big boy painters. I felt like in photography I could have a voice. The other thing that happened is that I went to a gallery and saw a group show with Jan Dibbets work. It was sort of a pastiche, like David Hockney. I was talking to the people at the gallery, just kind of being nosy, and I said, 멖ow did he make these??And they said, 멟h, he sent them out to the corner drugstore to be developed.?I thought, Oh. That means I can do it. Because I thought to be a photographer you had to have years of training.
In a previous interview (1996, Bomb Magazine) you said that 밿n 1976, when I started to make my work, I knew what I was working against far more concretely than what I was working towards.? Were you aware of that then? How do you think that shaped your work?
Well, I think what I was working against was that traditional artist mold, and the male-dominated painter/sculptor thing. When I came to New York I stopped, looked, and listened, and tried to understand what was going on. I realized that contemporary art is a dialogue that뭩 going on all the time between artists. You see things going on in art history and you see things going on around you, and a lot of what you do is a response to what you see. It뭩 not just going into your studio and doing the first intuitive thing; it뭩 a form of mental exercise. Even if you뭨e not in dialogue with anybody specifically, you뭨e constantly looking and having an internal response. I made a decision that I wanted to participate in everything that felt most new and most current. Which isn뭪 to say that that makes my art more valid than someone who paints still-lives and avoids New York. But once I got on board that train there was no getting off. The greatest gift, for me, is that I뭭e been able to show my work for so long. It뭩 a tremendous gift to exhibit your work.
I wanted to ask you about shows specifically. By 1980 you뭗 had three solo and three group exhibitions. How did you begin showing your work? Was there a point when your career took off?
Does it seem fast? I뭗 been making art my whole life. I graduated in 1971, and I was self-taught as a photographer, so I had several years of experimenting and teaching myself. In 1976 I made some pictures and I was conscious that I was making my work. By 1978--I worked a lot during those two years--I was interested in potentially showing it. In 1979, almost by accident, I had my first show. Someone came from Artist뭩 Space to look at my boyfriend뭩, now my husband뭩, work, and he looked at my work as well, and I got a show. It says something about putting yourself in a place where there are possibilities. At that time I was completely saturated in the New York art scene. It was much smaller--you could easily take it in every month: go to all the shows and screenings and read all the magazines; it was much easier to grasp. So there뭩 being in the right place at the right time, and then there뭩 also the determination to put yourself there.
Was there a point when you felt your career took off?
Well, my biggest thrill was my first show at Artist뭩 Space: seeing my name in print for the first time in The Village Voice and meeting the first stranger to respond to my work. I signed with Metro Pictures Gallery in 1980꿣ut I have never been at a point where I ever felt like it was smooth sailing. No. Not now, not ever.
The photography world has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, especially given the advent of digital technology. It뭗 be possible for you to construct your sets on a computer rather than in your studio. Does that interest you?
I haven뭪 taken advantage of it. I know myself, and my work, and there뭩 something about the way I assemble my work that makes it my work. I뭭e tried to do some of the same things digitally, and I lose whatever it is that make it mine. But I뭢 about to put my archives on a database. So in many ways it affects my work every day.
My work is a lot about what I can뭪 do technically as much as what I can. I뭢 limited by my training. I understand my limitations: my flat-footed lighting and sense of space, and that뭩 what I try to hang on to. I뭢 good at doing my work my way. There뭩 a lot I do wrong that I think enhances what I do.
How did you support yourself in the beginning?
I started showing in 1979, and around 1987 it started to become clear that I could live off what I do, and I had to set up my life to make that happen. Some years are good, and some are not as good, and it뭩 a constant struggle because this is my livelihood and I have children. I뭭e also taught, and done commercial work. When I began that there was a bias against commercial work, but today people love to do it, are dying to do it. The dollhouse I designed for Bozart has generated so much good-natured envy.
What was it like to design a toy?
I resisted it for a while, because my work has such child-like images and I didn뭪 want to reinforce that. Then I woke up one morning and thought, I뭗 love to make a dollhouse. It was a great experience. It was completely pleasurable, and it gave me the rare opportunity to collaborate with another artist [architect Peter Wheelwright].
In 1997 you curated a show of emerging photographers for New York뭩 Casey Kaplan Gallery. What do you look for when reviewing an artist뭩 work?
I follow my intuition. You just land on a picture and it touches you. There was no conceptual armature--I just followed my heart and my eyes. I leave the treatises to the curators.
How do you arrange your own shows--do you track down opportunities at all?
I was with my gallery for 20 years and they handled everything. In May of 2000 I left. Now I work directly with the galleries I show with. I뭭e learned more in the last two years about art and business than in my entire career beforehand. It뭩 interesting to realize how much better a businessperson I am than I뭗 anticipated. It뭩 enormous work--I deal with shipping, receiving, consignment, everything my gallery did. But it뭩 also fantastic. I뭠l never give up that control now that I have the experience. That said, it would have been difficult to handle earlier, because I was insecure.
What made you decide to leave your gallery?
I felt we had finished our time together. My career had reached a plateau. It was a tremendous risk, but I felt there might be other opportunities outside their realm. It took me a few years to find the courage to do it. Before I could be ready to leave I had to be prepared for two things: One, that no one would call me. Two, that my income would dwindle to zero and I뭗 have to shut down the studio. Once I was prepared for that, I could leave. I left, and I got calls within the first few weeks, and I sold work almost immediately.
So do you now seek out galleries to show at?
No. I뭢 still not comfortable going and asking. The nature of the work is what takes you from one place to another; it뭩 obvious who뭗 be interested because of what they show. I don뭪 mean to sound mysterious, because it뭩 not mysterious, but the art world is still old-fashioned: deals are still sealed with a handshake, there aren뭪 contracts, and people are very polite. Like any relationship, it뭩 all intuitive. It sounds scary, but for the sake of your work you can do extraordinary things. That뭩 what gets me from one place to another. When I began I was shy, but I thought, I뭢 doing this for the sake of my work. It always comes back to your work.
Any advice for emerging artists?
The most important thing--even if you know you want to be an artist and live that life--is to find your subject. Then your work is really yours. Once you feel stronger about this work it will be apparent where to go with it. It뭩 also important to keep looking at contemporary art--don뭪 cut yourself off, and keep your eye sharp. I can뭪 tell you how many times people bring me work about issues that have already been dealt with. The more you know, the freer you are to find your own voice.
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