Taryn Simon's exhibition at the architecturally distinguished Milwaukee Art Museum offered up a generous and inquisitive photographic archive that spanned ten years and three distinct projects: "The Innocents," 2002, portraits of people wrongfully convicted of violent crimes; "An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar," 2007, images of sites and holdings generally inaccessible to the public; and "Contraband" 2010, a series that documents, with clinical precision, items seized over a given week from airline passengers entering the United States. Depending on her subject matter, Simon employs different photographic techniques, ranging from formal studio conventions to documentary methods to a more prominent vernacular or de-skilled aesthetic. Combined with expository writings and elaborate descriptive titles that contextualize each image, Simon's pictorial investigations arc as rich in sociological intrigue as thev are in truth value.
This is particularly true of her "Innocents" series; in one print, Simon presents a white middle-aged man at night, standing, staring back at the viewer from between two illuminated headlights. The title of the work says it all: Charles Iririn Fain, scene of the crime, the Snake River, Melha, Idaho, served 18 years of a death sentence for murder, rape, and kidnapping. In another large-format chromogenic print, the subject is identified as Larry Mayes, re-creating the setting of his arrest. Lying belly down, he looks out from between two soiled mattresses stacked on the floor of a now abandoned hotel room listed in the title as the Royal Inn, Gary, Indiana. After serving eighteen-and-a-half years for rape, robbery, and unlawful deviant conduct, this man seems as dejected and exhausted as his sordid surroundings. In works such as these, Simon sets the stage for what could be a powerful indictment of our justice system, revealing through each of the eleven "Innocents" included in this show the toll wrongful incarceration inflicts on the individual.
The theatrical and editorial liberties Simon took while composing "The Innocents" were absent, however, in the stark, objectively composed images that constituted "Contraband." To procure the illegal, prohibited, pirated, or counterfeit items featured in this series--tobacco products, fake Louis Vuitton handbags, onions, and deer parts (including tongue, penis, antlers, and blood)--Simon remained at New York's John F. …