Taryn Simon’s exhibit of large-format photographs has its roots in an assignment from the New York Times Magazine in 2000. The magazine asked her to photograph a handful of wrongfully convicted men who’d been on death row. Simon found that while some were angry and others were forgiving, all had been devastated. “They would tell me about the process by which they were convicted,” she says, “and it often involved a victim responding to a photograph presented by law enforcement, and then having to deal with her personal memory of the experience.” The process was frequently flawed–sometimes the police would show the victim two sets of photos in which one picture repeated.

The daughter of an amateur photographer, Simon says she grew up with lots of weekend slide shows: “My parents relate to the past through photographs, and I’ve always been interested in the way photographs replace memories.” After the assignment was done, she began researching wrongful convictions and the role photography plays in the legal system. Reminded of the importance of context in photography, she included captions with this set of portraits. Her book, The Innocents, includes even more explanatory text.

Funded by a Guggenheim grant and the Innocence Project in New York, with assistance from organizations like the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, Simon crisscrossed the country for six months, photographing about 50 subjects. While a few former inmates didn’t want to be involved, most were eager. Simon knew before she talked to them that even honestly solicited eyewitness testimony could be wrong, but she was surprised at how often the process was corrupt. One of her subjects, Troy Webb, was sentenced to 47 years (he served 7) because the victim told the investigators, “‘It looks like him, but he’s a little too old.’ So the police showed her a picture taken four years before the crime.”

Simon says that the first few photos she took didn’t represent the power of the stories she was hearing, so she changed the locales. “I went back and rephotographed at sites that had particular significance. The most powerful place to photograph was the scene of the crime–most of the time they’ve read about it but have never been there. If you’re innocent, you don’t want to have any familiarity with that place before your trial.” Other sites are somehow related to the case: Simon photographed Calvin Washington, who did 13 years, through the window of a motel room, the place where a witness claimed Washington had confessed. But others didn’t want to visit the crime scene even though their innocence had been proved, fearing the visit could be used against them.

While attending Brown University, Simon took classes at the Rhode Island School of Design and discovered large-format photography. “I liked the complexity of it combined with the beauty. The resolution is amazing.” For magazine assignments, she shot her subjects–Chechen fighters and members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, normally shown in fleeting moments–with a four-by-five camera, carefully lighting and composing her portraits. In this series, too, she tried to honor the serious subject matter. “These are people who have only been presented photographically in very degraded terms, in old photos poorly reproduced or through their mug shots.” When “The Innocents” opened in New York in 2003, the Life After Exoneration Project flew her subjects in. Most still live in fear or are haunted by their convictions. Some lost their families while they were in prison, many are unemployed, and others are working at jobs far below their capabilities. “When you go for a job interview, you have to say you’ve been in prison,” Simon says, “so they’re going with newspaper clippings to show their innocence.” After the book came out, they had additional proof.

Taryn Simon: The Innocents

When: Through Sat 10/1

Where: Museum of Contemporary Photography, 600 S. Michigan

Info: 312-663-5554, 312-344-7104