Laurie Simmons has an impressive doll collection, albeit one that might unsettle your average Barbie fan. Miniature figurines, ventriloquist dummies, mannequins — and one uncannily realistic Japanese sex doll — populate the photographer’s Brooklyn studio, all having once come to life in front of her camera lens.
“For me, the inanimate can often say and do more than the living because we take a second look in a way that we wouldn’t with a picture of a person,” she says. “I give them a kind of life through my photos.”
For more than 40 years, the New York-based artist has produced images offering her slant on the American dream — that is, one based on excess, domesticity and a society obsessed with image.
She has held exhibitions and fellowships around the world, collaborated with fashion designers including Thakoon Panichgul and Peter Jensen and, in 2006, directed a three-act musical that showcased musicians, puppets and actress Meryl Streep.
She also happens to be the mother of the actress Lena Dunham — creator of the Girls TV comedy and (with tongue lodged firmly in cheek) self-proclaimed voice of her generation.
I have the opposite of agoraphobia
Indeed Simmons, 65, starred in Dunham’s feature film Tiny Furniture four years ago, playing the art-imitating-life role of a mother and successful photographer whose daughter returns home after university with a heavy dose of student debt and self-entitlement.
The movie, which won Best First Screenplay at the Independent Film Awards, was shot inside the family’s New York apartment and — adding to the house of mirrors — followed Dunham’s character as she sought inspiration from her mother. Its title referred to Simmons’s signature subject of small figurines.
But it is Simmons’s 2009-2011 series, The Love Doll — in which the photographer documents her growing familiarity with a life-size latex doll from a Japanese sex shop — which has now brought her to London, specifically to the Victoria & Albert Museum. Here, her work is being displayed alongside that of 10 other international artists for the Prix Pictet Global Photography Exhibition, which takes “consumption” as its motif.
“It’s always been a big theme of mine; that kind of push and pull between who you are and what you own,” Simmons says. “My very first pictures were small dolls in doll houses, almost subsumed by the objects they lived with. I’m interested in a woman or a family’s disappearance into their life in a certain way.”
Simmons cites Japan as a major source of inspiration, having first visited a few years ago with Dunham, and then again with her younger daughter, Grace. She loves the way the country “embraces childhood as an entire nation”, explaining: “You walk through Tokyo and you just feel assaulted by tiny animated characters chirping at you [and] windows full of toys. It makes me feel very alive to feel bombarded like that. I have the opposite of agoraphobia. I am very interested in looking at the world through a child’s eyes.”
By employing the dolls in her work, she makes social statements about the woman’s role at home — passivity and, up to a point, captivity.
But she also hopes to make a more general statement about society’s obsession with symbols, status and superficial layers, a view inspired by her childhood.
“Every visual aspect of my work comes from the first 17 years of my life,” she recalls. “I grew up in the post-war Jewish suburb of Long Island, where the value system was totally based on how we presented ourselves.
“The most important thing I remember about religion was what we wore to synagogue on High Holy-Days. It was so important to go and dress properly. My mother worked hard to make sure we looked as perfect as the commercials we saw on TV.
“But, of course, I didn’t want to go and wear the right thing. I was a rebel and a renegade.”
In keeping with her work’s social critique, Simmons says she has eschewed labels since adolescence, something her conservative parents struggled to accept. “My mother and father were first generation American,” she says. “They were so enamoured by the country and wanted to assimilate by living in the right house, driving the right car and buying the right product.
“They found it very painful when I protested against the Vietnam War in the 1960s.”
Now living geographically close but culturally far from Long Island in the hipster hub of Williamsburg with her painter husband Carroll Dunham, she describes theirs as a far more laissez-faire approach to family life.
“I don’t go to synagogue but I have no objection to going, or to observing Judaism,” she says. “And, while I didn’t marry a Jew, my children identify as both Jewish and Wasp. They’re thrilled to have dual heritage.”
The photographer’s latest project again takes its inspiration from Japan with a series of images that follow the kigurumi craze — that is, humans wearing dolls’ outfits and masks. Where before she gave life to the inanimate, she now appears to be animating the living.
It is perhaps her career-long fascination with human behaviour and performance, plus her own rebellious past, that leave her expecting rebellion from the next generation.
But surprisingly to Simmons, her children seem to enjoy her company.
“For my generation, there was a tremendous fissure between us and our parents. I was so used to not wanting them to come into the room when my friends were over.
“So I am still stunned when my kids say: ‘Please join us for dinner’. Or ‘please hang out with us’. I’m just like: ‘Are you kidding?’”