Laurie Simmons - Biography and Legacy
American Photographer and Filmmaker
New York City
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.