Originally published in
December/January, 1986

Allan McCollum
& Laurie Simmons.
Actual Photo.


REMEMBER "TRUTH IN LABELLING"? Remember "pictures don't lie"? Well, Allan McCollum and Laurie Simmons do and they've resurrected those concepts in their recent photographic collaboration – yet people are having a hard time believing them. Actual Photos are just that – a series of "surrogate portraits," taken under a microscope, of figures whose heads are less than 1/16" in diameter and whose deformed appearance takes on a disturbing edge.

The idea of the "substitute" operates in the work of both artists. McCollum is best known for his "surrogates" – plaster entities that reiterate the formal elements which trigger our recognition of given objects as paintings – image, mat, frame; except that when we seek out the image, we are offered instead only a blackish absence. Often installed by the hundreds, these objects function as ironic signs for art. In his related work, McCollum shoots photos of the interiors in television programs and movies directly off the TV screen. These scenes contain prop paintings used in the sets, which the artist then isolates and enlarges. Through the reproduction process, these "paintings" come to bear an uncanny resemblance to McCollum's surrogates.

Laurie Simmons has long used dolls as stand-ins for the human figure in her photos, in addition to her work with live models, placing them in meticulously constructed miniature rooms, swimming pools, and against interiors and landscapes culled from mass media sources. The photos deal with the construction of identity vis-a-vis gender boundaries, power hierarchies and stereotyping. And the duplicitous function of fashion in presentation of the self.

Because both artists question the value systems which determine the type of information and visual representations the culture industry permits us to receive, critics commonly subsume their works under the rubric of postmodernism. In this interview are revealed the private dimensions of the work which "isms" in general fail to address; revealed ironically, perhaps inadvertently, is how the art object too falls prey to stereotype.

EYE: I want to call your collaboration anti-heroic both in its diminutive size and subject matter because most collaborations these days seem to be between the "hot" painters in which one "scribbles" over the other's painting. You two have created something distinct from both your individual products. How did this collaboration come about?

McCOLLUM: When I began to discuss Laurie's work with her, I was surprised to find that I focused on certain aspects of it which she didn't regard as central. What I like about Laurie's photos is the way they fail to work. She uses the camera on a figurine and treats it as if it were a real person – with a kind of childlike wishfulness or suspension of disbelief. Yet the ultimate product is not at all a convincing illusion, so that it seems to me that her work is about representations which fail to accomplish their purpose. It struck me that this aspect of her work could be exaggerated if she were to shoot microscopic portraits of figurines which were too small to have any realistic features; figurines that weren't even meant to be scrutinized at all, so the the photos really wouldn't work. I came to her with this idea and Laurie responded by saying it sounded like something I would do in my work, not like something she would do. . .

SIMMONS: Allan and I had a relationship around my work where I would reach an impasse and ask him for ideas – I would be very enthusiastic and then never use them. This particular concept felt so much like an idea for my work filtered through Allan's mind that I said let's do it together.

It had many of the qualities in Allan's work that are interesting to me but that I feel are never available in my own work. The surrogates are austere in the sense that they are so beautifully simple and minimal: and direct and cool to the touch, whereas my work can be so overloaded with details and backgrounds and layers. There's austerity in his black and white photos shot off the TV screen as well: you never really deal with figures except as they turn up incidentally on the screen. In terms of obscurity, there's a way the pictures are always fuzzy and include things blown up from smaller parts. Those photos remind me of the scene in Blade Runner where the camera can actually go into the space of the photograph and continually blow sections up.

McCOLLUM: To me that's about wishing. wishing to be in the picture, or to be of the picture, perhaps. Wishing to discover something in the art object, something previously unknown or unconscious, or to reproduce a state of enchantment by using an image. I know of course that nothing will be found, but that doesn't affect the wish. I'm ironically expressing that wish, maybe, through an inherently fruitless act.

SIMMONS: Initially, you were looking for and finding traces of your art – the surrogates – everywhere in the pictures you shoot off the TV and you find more and more things all the time. But I feel like the desire is really to locate and record a part of yourself.

McCOLLUM: I think the act of photographing something has an emotional dimension: it involves a desire to see things more clearly, to construct a more stable view of one's world, one's life. Maybe I'm thinking of these aspects because I see them in your work, too.

SIMMONS: You always say my work is about wishing. There is that element in my work which is about the desire to be something, a certain sense of never having been or never having seen or never having done or never can be – maybe I'm just saying it negatively and Allan expresses it in the positive. The thing I guess I resist saying is that my pictures are about a sense of inadequacy; and the thing is that I try so hard to make them work. It's never about trying not to make something work.

McCOLLUM: You start out with an impossible set of circumstances; there is no way you are going to make a little, rigid plastic figure look alive in front of your rear-projection screen.

SIMMONS: But it really almost does sometimes.

McCOLLUM: I know, but there is such a feeling of poignancy in your work, that you should try so hard to create the effect of reality with such crude and un-cooperative materials.

EYE: Laurie, writing about your work always focuses on the gender stereotyping, the issues of women being watched and manipulated. No one raises the ideas you're addressing now. What you're talking about is really a kind of tenderness.

SIMMONS: Well, tenderness isn't the subject of choice in art today.

EYE: This tenderness also describes a search for the self which operates in your work, perhaps more explicitly than in Allan's photos, since the dolls are a tangible starting point for the viewer. Though the particulars vary from one photo to the next, your work makes reference to situations encountered by both genders.

SIMMONS: We're all expected to fulfill certain behavioral codes and responsibilities connected to our gender: the strong athlete, the successful business man, the graceful dancer, the nurturing homemaker, even the artist. It is often difficult to get these roles "right" in terms of our own expectations and my use of irreconcilable parts in the photos – fake figures in real landscapes or real people in unreal environments – is an analogue to this situation. We try very hard to get it right, and are sometimes secretly convinced we've failed, so I think a sense of inauthenticity pervades most social performance.

McCOLLUM: Laurie's work seems to be about all those excruciating levels of self consciousness one experiences with regard to one's "type." The microphotography of these figures in Actual Photos focuses on the notion of stereotyping and reduces it. The figurines we used were less than 1/4" tall, made for tiny model train layouts. There are hundreds of types one can buy – children, doctors, farmers, fat people, lovers and so forth; all our stereotypes reiterated. These reduced images, these little blobs of faces remind me of what it must be like looking towards a stereotype that isn't quite formed, perhaps as a child might see it.

I think it's a typical – and annoying – masculine trait to reduce things. In my own work, I'm constantly trying to reduce things way beyond the point which might make sense – exaggerating the wishes for control that reduction represents. I think one of the characteristics of the collaboration is that I approached Laurie' work – -

SIMMONS: And reduced it – because it's true, I expand things, as when I subject an inconsequential doll to theatrical lighting, place it on a "stage," photograph and enlarge it, with the result that a reading of monumentality is enforced by these dramatic devices.

McCOLLUM: But the reduction I referred to can be a kind of mutilation, as when a person is reduced to a stereotype. Our figurines are too small to have readable features – there is a sort of an anarchistic pleasure in this for me; the pleasure of seeing a stereotype fail to do its dirty work.

EYE: When I was in Gallery Nature Morte a young woman came in, read the explanation of the procedures you used and still insisted that you must have done something to the figures – burned or melted them – to get them to look that way. Her association with their "humanity" had triggered off quite an emotional response. I was a bit surprised.

SIMMONS: We were not trying to manipulate the viewer, but there's definitely been a lot of that kind of response – we've been accused of doing many things to the figures.

McCOLLUM: They come right out of the package and go right under the microscope. These photos I think problematize the idea of expressionism. The images appear to have been mutilated, and one tends to respond to this empathetically, with horror or some other strong feeling. And yet the actual intention behind the faces, the intention of the manufacturer, has nothing to do with emotional expression whatsoever. One's response then has to do with something quite unrelated to the "passion" or "vision" of an artist: one reads as an expression something which is actually a quality of form.

SIMMONS: The things people have compared them to are interesting. Many have mentioned Francis Bacon, Elie Nadelman. Chaim Soutine: mostly expressionistic painting and sculpture. Then of course, more banal takes – wanted posters, mug shots, ex-boyfriends, year book photos.

McCOLLUM: I think most expressionism is based on a simple device of distortion: if what should otherwise be a coherent picture is rendered incoherently, then one is simply reminded of what one's emotions do to one's inner representation when one is upset, namely one sees things distortedly, period.

I think once the viewer knows there was no intention that these figures should be so distorted, the distortion takes on a very different quality; it becomes innocent, and the response changes.

SIMMONS: When we were making these photos I often thought about the anthropological experiment where Eskimo women were shown photos of their children and were unable to recognize them. They didn't have the proper cognitive tools to organize the information on a two-dimensional surface. They had to be "taught" to see.

McCOLLUM: The Actual Photos are really about seeing – scientific seeing – crossed with the inevitability of one's emotional response to things – the expressivity of seeing.

EYE: In the past thirty years or so we have witnessed the erosion of belief in the scientific method, particularly in physics. Subatomically, objectivity fails since the tools which enable observation can change the outcome of the experiment: "seeing" and "veracity" become incompatible.

McCOLLUM: So it is with Actual Photos. How could one possibly maintain an objective view of these objects? These figurines are just raw facts, but they don't submit very well to scientific scrutiny. They reproduce in an exaggerated way what happens in most cases when a scientist looks to study something.

SIMMONS: An actual photo is such an obsolete idea anyway. We're telling you that this is an "actual photo" which is supposed to mean something serious and you'd better believe it. When we came up with the name I remember all those comic books in the 1950s where you could send away for, say, monkeys that fit into teacups, and underneath the picture it would say "actual photo" or "actual size," so you'd know that you'd receive a 3" monkey, and that the image wasn't a life-like drawing. I think of scientific veracity as an idea from the past – the scientists say this is so, the photo is the proof. Even the authoritative power of the word "actual" – an actual what? An actual retouched photo? An actual collaged photo? People are much more willing to believe that pictures lie than that they can express any kind of truth.

Allan McCollum
& Laurie Simmons.
Actual Photo.

Allan McCollum
& Laurie Simmons.
Actual Photo.
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