Taryn Simon has been perfecting an approach to photography we might call forensic: Stark, systematically organized images lie in acres of white space, accompanied by captions written in a bloodless officialese. A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters, 2008–11, is her most ambitious and rigorous undertaking yet. She documents eighteen families—or “bloodlines,” to use her more evocative, violent term—affected by war, disease, religious strife, or economic predation. Each section features portraits of a central figure among his or her ancestors and descendants, arrayed in a strictly ordered series. Though the artist traveled around the world to photograph these families, you wouldn’t know it; all eight hundred–plus portraits are taken against the same cream background, with the same disconcertingly generous headroom. Alongside the portraits Simon includes an explanatory text and key, as well as a frame dedicated to less austere images that Simon calls “footnotes”: a landscape, an interior.
Many sections chronicle families living along contemporary political fault lines: One panel follows a South Korean abducted by North Korean naval agents, another a Palestinian woman involved in several plane hijackings. Others concern the legacy of earlier cruelties—for instance, one set depicts the descendants of a Filipino man put on display at the 1904 World’s Fair. She even records acts of brutality within a single family; the title story concerns an Indian man who discovered he had lost his land after his own heirs bribed records administrators to have him declared deceased.
Simon may have a literary model in mind, with her use of “chapters” and “footnotes” and heavy reliance on text. But the real productive tension in her work comes from two opposing photographic impulses: a journalistic one that prizes clarity and detachment, and a more artistic one that relies heavily on obliquity. Even when documented with the greatest rigor, she seems to say, this world will never make much sense.
— Jason Farago