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47 x 62 inches

Taryn Simon: The Picture Collection

This month, American photographer and installation artist Taryn Simon presented “The Picture Collection” at Gagosian Gallery on Davies Street in London. The exhibition – on view through March 28 – continues to build upon her vast body of meticulously researched work, such as investigating bloodlines (“A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII,” 2011) and examining power structures (“An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar,” 2007).

“The Picture Collection” is born out of Image Atlas, a collaboration between Simon and the late computer programmer Aaron Swartz. Image Atlas is an online database investigating cultural differences and similarities; type in any search term and Image Atlas will index top images from local search engines throughout the world.

47 x 62 inches

Before Google, we had institutions like the New York Public Library to serve as our top image bank and in past decades artists – Andy Warhol, for example – sifted through the NYPL’s archive of 1.2 million images for inspiration. Therefore, it’s natural for Simon to turn to the NYPL Picture Collection for this new series. For years she has examined the way we classify images, stemming from a concern with “cross-cultural communication and visual language.” The resulting photographs are comprised of pictures taken from 44 themed folders covering an array of subjects, from the topical (Israel) to the absurd (Beards and Mustaches).

Walking into the gallery space is not unlike walking into a giant encyclopedia. Framed and mounted to reference early hanging systems in museums and libraries, the works are characteristic of Simon’s compulsion to archive. Complex and multilayered, the images overlap each other, slicing individuals in half and taking away information to create a geometric composition.

Edition of 5 + 2 APs

As with all her work there is an important interrelation between text and imagery throughout the exhibition. Images that have been historically inscribed sit beside those that have not – for example, a Weegee photograph is paired with a commissioned advertisement – questioning the hierarchies by which visual material is categorized.

At the Rhizome’s annual Seven on Seven conference in 2012, Simon spoke of her concern with how “archiving systems impose an illusory structural order on the radically chaotic and indeterminate nature of everything.”

Here, the myriad of images that constitute “The Picture Collection” appear comprehensive, yet on closer look have been meticulously edited down, exploring the “differences and repetitions in popularly distributed visual material.” Much like the Internet search engines examined in Image Atlas, a seemingly neutral system of organization has chosen what to include or omit from the archive.

Photography, at its most seductive, fools us into believing it is a truthful documentation of a subject matter. Simon’s practice has always tested the limits of photography and her choice to partially conceal every image highlights just this notion. “The Picture Collection” has not only paid tribute to the mystery of the analog picture archive but has, more importantly, shed light on the defiant systems that govern our image banks today.

Taryn Simon was born in New York in 1975. She is a graduate of Brown University and a Guggenheim Fellow. Her work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Tate Modern, London, Centre Pompidou, Paris and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York to name a few.

Her previous work Contraband (2010), is an archive of global desires and perceived threats, presenting 1,075 images of items that were detained or seized from passengers and mail entering the United States from abroad. An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), reveals objects, sites, and spaces integral to America’s foundation and mythology; ranging from radioactive capsules at a nuclear waste storage facility to the art collection of the CIA. The Innocents (2003) documents cases of wrongful conviction in the U.S., calling into question photography’s function as a credible witness and arbiter of justice.

A major exhibition of Simon’s work will open at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing in September 2013, and her photographs will be featured in the 56th Carnegie International later this year.





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