Laurie Simmons and Molly Ringwald are Playing with the Big Boys
The iconic actress and legendary photographer talk about cameras, color, and what it means to be a woman in the arts.
Laurie Simmons and Molly Ringwald are a bit of an item. In the past year, Ringwald interviewed Simmons on WYNC’s Studio 360; for a conversation in Lenny Letter, Simmons turned the spotlight on Ringwald, the breakout star of the John Hughes classics Sixteen Candles (1984) and Pretty in Pink (1986), who recently appeared in the stage adaptation of Terms of Endearment. On the first Tuesday in November—when New York was still bubbling with the anticipation of possibly electing the first woman president—I attended the ICP Spotlights Awards luncheon, where Ringwald celebrated Simmons, the honoree. Amidst the soft clatter of dessert forks and champagne flutes, the duo discussed not only Simmons’s iconic work, but also what it means to be a woman in the arts.
At the beginning of their conversation, Simmons mentioned that, in the ’70s, she saw an opportunity for women artists to disrupt the male-dominated, documentary-focused field of photography. Most famously, her photographs elevate miniature objects—houses, dolls, furniture—playthings of girls who are destined for domesticity. She shows us ourselves through the very tools that confine women to certain standards of behavior, beauty, and ambition. In Aperture’s current issue, “On Feminism,” Simmons writes that How We See (2015), her recent project, “is partly concerned with directives in language and the expectations imposed by pronouns like he, she, it, they, them.” She examines what a universal “we” could imply at a time when classes and cultures are becoming increasingly isolated. What we see, and how we see is who we are. —Annika Klein
Molly Ringwald: You don’t necessarily consider yourself a photographer, but more of an artist who uses a camera. Why did you decide to use the camera instead of a different medium?
Laurie Simmons: I came to New York after a very formal, rigorous art school education. Conceptual art, process art, and video and were bursting wide open. My education, which was printmaking, painting, and sculpture, just didn’t seem relevant in 1973–74. Conceptual art was about people picking up a camera because they had to document what they were doing. Fashion photography was also exciting then between Deborah Turbeville, Chris von Wangenheim, and Helmut Newton. And I just thought: A camera—maybe that’s an interesting tool.
I wasn’t aware of a lot of women photographers at the time so I thought, maybe this path is a little clearer for me than painting or sculpture or art history; as it was taught to me, most of its characters were male. I, like a number of other women artists at the time, saw something that we might be able to invent, or at least mold.
Ringwald: How did you start taking pictures? Did someone actually teach you the technique?
Simmons: Kind of, yes. I shared a loft with the photographer Jimmy DeSana who died of AIDS in 1990. We got a two hundred foot long loft in SoHo for no money—everyone loves that, or hates it. [Laughs.] We put a dividing wall in between and I had a darkroom, and he had a darkroom. Basically, I started with a book and tried to figure out what to do. I had walked out of a photography class in art school because I thought, frankly, photography wasn’t art. I just dismissed it. Jimmy DeSana taught me everything I knew. And when he wasn’t around, there was this thing called the Kodak Hotline, and you could call and there was a guy on the other end who sounded like an astronaut. I called so many times that I started disguising my voice and putting on different accents because I thought, this guy’s not going to answer any of my questions. Between Jimmy DeSana’s instruction and what I learned from the Kodak man, I was really self-taught.
Ringwald: Could you tell us about your work from that time?
Simmons: My first show was at Artists Space in New York in 1979 and it got reviewed in the Village Voice, which is still one of the most exciting things that has ever happened to me. It was reviewed by Ben Lifson and he called me a feminist artist. The article was called “Robert Frank and the Track of Life.” Even though I was a baby booming feminist I was so floored, because I was surprised to be referred to as a feminist artist.
Ringwald: Did you consider yourself a feminist?
Simmons: Yes, I did. But I didn’t think that I was making art about that, nor did I want to because I felt that the generation before me had marginalized themselves by calling themselves feminist artists. Like a lot of women in my generation, I wanted to play with the big boys; I wanted to do everything that was available to do; I wanted to hang in museums, which is what eventually led me to make big prints.
Ringwald: When you look back on the work now, do you see it as feminist art? I say that in a good way, because I don’t think “feminist” is a bad word.
Simmons: I don’t think “feminist” is a bad word, and it’s starting to become clear to me that a number of young women do think it’s a bad word. I’d like to know why, but I think I was making work about memory. Those pictures were not a critique about a housewife being entrapped, enmeshed in her own possessions, or being trapped in her own home. I loved the images from Life magazine. These were the kinds of pictures that drove me crazy.
Ringwald: “I courted an angel and married a cook.”
Simmons: Which is incredible. My father was a dentist who had an office in his house. He had huge magazines—Look and Life—and I was reading that stuff when I was really young. He used to invite my and me sister into the office to read. He had a great fish tank, and these beautiful magazines. My visual brain started to work in his office. I had a memory of that period of time being so idealized, and I lived in suburbia—it was so beautiful on the surface. I wanted to make work that was as beautiful as the work in Life magazine. I wanted my pictures to look like that.
The most striking feature of my childhood home was that everything was color-coordinated. In the most amazing way. I am programmed to see color-coordination because of how rigorous the steps were that everybody took to make sure that the world matched in some way.
Ringwald: Have you used the color coordination from your youth in your art?
Simmons: Yes. I love shooting in black-and-white, but I am most conversant in color. As a child, I could identify people’s lipsticks. If you had to have your shoes dyed to match your dress, I didn’t have to use the color chart.
Ringwald: You got married in 1983. Do you feel that getting married and having children affected your art in any way?
Simmons: I’m really glad you asked that question, because if someone asked me that question twenty years ago I would have refused to answer. I felt that all artists should be on a level playing field: men and women, gay and straight. People were not asking men that question. Now I think it’s important to answer the question because there are many young women artists who feel like it’s not appropriate to have children. A number of them have come to me and asked me my thoughts about it, about the idea of being an artist and having a child. Of all of the things that everyone says about Hillary Clinton, I haven’t heard anyone criticize her for being a mother. Or Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or Meryl Streep, or Margaret Thatcher. So why this question exists in the art world is really baffling to me.
Ringwald: Going back to the idea that being a feminist can have a bad connotation, being a mother can also be seen as a negative connotation. Why would being a mother influencing your art be considered a bad thing?
Simmons: I don’t know if being a mother, per se, influenced my work. Although, when I was making the ventriloquism series in 1987, I made three trips to a ventriloquist museum down South, and photographed hundreds of dummies against a background. In hindsight, it did occur to me that I was moving the dummies around and carrying them, and then going back home and picking up a child who weighed relatively the same. Often times, I think the artist is the last person to know what the connections really are.
When I was making the work, I was coming into my full-blown, adult political awareness. What I was thinking about was: who’s actually speaking? Who’s really speaking when we read the newspaper? Who’s really speaking when we listen to a politician? Who’s really speaking when we listen to newscasters? Where is the information coming from? It was the moment when I became mature enough to understand all the information that was coming at me.
Ringwald: What was the inspiration for the series Walking and Lying Objects that you recently revisited for your video with New York magazine?
Simmons: This was my friend Jimmy DeSana in the camera, which was from the movie The Wiz (1978). We borrowed it from the Museum of the Moving Image. We both knew that he was dying of AIDS. Not something that we talked about a lot, but this was an homage to him in the sense that he taught me everything I knew, and he loved posing for it. It makes me so happy that people associate this picture first and foremost with my work because it’s so much about him, and my relationship with him. The reason I thought about doing objects on legs is the ventriloquist series had been so much about the brain, and I wanted to think about brawn, and the way that we as women, or people, have to heft, hold up the possessions of our life—we become subsumed by them, we hold onto them. This is more of a classic feminist statement than the early dollhouse pictures.
Ringwald: That feeling of carrying around a lot—I feel like that every day. Every day I find myself carrying so much stuff, and I think it is purely psychological, like I need to manifest everything in what I’m actually carrying, and this series reminds me of that.
Simmons: You need to take your life with you. A lot of people feel that. It was a long time ago now, but I was starting to think about aging and the ways I could portray that without hitting you over the head with it.
Ringwald: I’ve always thought that being an artist would make you less susceptible to the idea of aging. Is that a fallacy?
Simmons: Yes. One of the great things about being an artist is that we’re never going to retire. I will work on whatever I can work on until the very end. It would be impossible to be a woman in our culture—you’d have to live under a rock—not to think about issues around aging. The U.S. is manic about youth. It doesn’t mean that everyone hates the age that they are or wants to be young, but it’s there for us to see every single day. As an artist, I think of all the work that I want to do, that’s left to do. Everyone is just battling the idea of a limited amount of time.
Ringwald: And that’s universal. Tell me about your first film, The Music of Regret.
Simmons: It was a musical in three acts, and it was a way to say goodbye to all of the work I had done until then. I wrote the lyrics, Michael Rohatyn wrote the melodies, which are beautiful. There was a moment there where I thought, this is it, I’m a lyricist. The dummy is an image of me, and then I cast Meryl Streep to play the dummy.
Ringwald: How did you end up with Meryl Streep in your project?
Simmons: I’ve known her for years. Her husband is a very well-known sculptor. I knew that Meryl liked to sing—this was before Mamma Mia! (2008). And I knew that if I played the songs that she would say yes, and she completely fell in love with the songs. She was going to be able to sing with Adam Guettel, who wrote The Light in the Piazza (2003) and was also the grandson of Richard Rogers.
Ringwald: Was it daunting at all, your first experience directing Meryl Streep?
Simmons: Well, you don’t direct Meryl Streep. [Big laugh from audience.] You just stand there and she does her thing perfectly. That was really not a directing experience.
In White House/Green Lawn (1998), which very few people have seen, I just moved around an architectural model, that just felt like the essence of a kind of suburban feeling. I often really like to shoot without figures or dolls, which is interesting for me because if I’m exhibiting the work, and standing in the gallery and people come in, they’re coming in looking for a doll. They’re looking for a figure. It’s almost amazing to see people’s eyes glaze over, like “where’s the doll? I’m out of here . . .” But I need to do it. And I do it periodically. I just make really empty spaces.
Ringwald: Why do you do it?
Simmons: Because it feels right to me. Sometimes the places I want to be don’t have figures in them, and I feel like that’s where I am when I look through the viewfinder.
Ringwald: Sort of like the difference of being an introvert and an extrovert. These images seem more introverted and peaceful.
Simmons: Exactly. And someplace where I like to go stand. The experience of shooting through a viewfinder—and this is more true for me when I’m shooting still photographs than when I’m shooting film—I really feel like I’m there. Whatever the camera factors out, or what I lose in my peripheral vision makes me feel like I’m physically standing in this place, which reminds me of the feelings that I had when I would sit on my mother’s lap and she would read a book, and I had this very profound, overwhelming desire to be in that book.
Ringwald: It evokes the same thing in the viewer. I tend to gravitate to authors who don’t describe the person physically in detail so I can event my own image.
Going back to interiors, what about your series Long House?
Simmons: I started cutting out figures and putting them in a house with furniture. Instead of being pristine, it felt more like a bordello. I loved shooting in a very different kind of space.
Ringwald: In the picture with the red bathroom, she’s wearing very sexy granny pants on.
Simmons: That’s because she’s cut out from a magazine. This is both embarrassing and very practical, I saved all my fashion magazines, my Mademoiselle, Glamour, Seventeen, and I have huge stacks of them. They’re an incredibly great resource. This series got me into a more cartoon, noir sort of world.
Ringwald: How long does it usually take you to do a photograph?
Simmons: I work in series. So when I get an idea, I set it up and I shoot, and I shoot, and I shoot. A series can go on for two years, or one month. I’m sure a lot of artists would share these feelings with me, but I know when things begin and I know when they’re over.
Ringwald: Most people don’t realize this, but along with dolls and puppets, you’ve also experimented with nudes and pornographic imagery.
Simmons: When I finished making my movie, I felt I’d left so much work behind, and I felt like I needed to start with no nostalgia and with a naked person. So I downloaded free internet porn which is probably college girls who needed extra money. I’ve only shown that work once. I have a hundred of them; I love them all. But women who thought they knew my work were so shocked that I put them away very quickly.
Ringwald: People were upset by it?
Simmons: I think they were puzzled. People thought they knew who I was and I wasn’t that person.
Ringwald: This is a question from the audience. You transition from black-and-white to color from your early work. Did this choice have to do with the idea of the time that black-and-white connotes the real and color could create a more constricted fantasy world?
Simmons: I’ve never thought about it that way before, but I have to praise whoever wrote that question. I often think about when Dorothy went to Oz and basically the lights were turned on and her fantasy life was exposed in beautiful emerald living Technicolor.
What I really want to get to is my most recent pictures, they’re called How We See, where the fashion model’s eyes are closed.
Ringwald: They’re so beautiful, and so creepy. But they’re striking; you can’t stop looking at them.
Simmons: It’s that classic there’s something wrong with this picture. And there is. They’re eyes are closed. It speaks to so many of the things I’m thinking about identity politics, and the idea that the person that we meet on the internet, the person who we project on the internet, may not be the person we think it is at all. I’m interested in false identity and the way we’re able to mask identity.
Annika Klein is the Editorial Assistant at Aperture magazine.
This interview is adapted from a live conversation at the International Center of Photography Spotlights Award Luncheon on November 1, 2016.