I first encountered New York-born artist Taryn Simon when her breathtaking body of work ‘An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar’ was nominated for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize at London’s Photographers’ Gallery in 2009. Rigorously composed photographs and extended texts comprised an inventory of secret or inaccessible locations and activities in her native country – taking in subjects as various as a nuclear waste storage facility, a cryopreservation unit and death row.
Taryn Simon, 'Folder: Swimming Pools', 2012. Archival inkjet print. 47 x 62 inches (119.4 x 157.5cm) Edition of 5 + 2 APs. Gagosian Gallery.
Her small exhibition currently at the Gagosian Gallery in Mayfair sees Simon turn towards an existing index: the image archive of the New York Public Library, which contains over 1.2 million printed images. The series entitled ‘The Picture Collection’ involves the photographer replicating the role of a Google image search button; she has picked various categories, ranging from ‘Express Highways’ to ‘Chiaroscuro’ and ‘Veils’, in which to group scores of found images from the collection.
Taryn Simon, 'Folder: Rear Views', 2012. Archival inkjet prints comprised of 3 components. 47 x 186 inches overall, (119.4x 472.4 cm) Edition of 5 + 2 APs. Gagosian Gallery.
The latter classification, for instance, brings together images of Middle Eastern dress with fashion photography and a reproduction of a Northern Renaissance painting. Displayed under glass with their edges overlaid, in no obvious hierarchy or order, the selection of prints brings home the sheer diversity of photographic representations: a word like ‘veil’ may first bring to mind Islam due to a contemporary media discourse, but it can relate to a much wider range of imagery than the religious.
Taryn Simon, 'Folder: Handshaking', 2012. Archival inkjet print. 47 x 62 inches (119.4 x 157.5 cm) Edition of 5 + 2 APs. Gagosian Gallery.
The series of ‘Rear Views’ is the most entertaining, juxtaposing as it does the posteriors of people ranging from American football players to city slickers, plus a few non-human subjects, such as a rear view of a castle. What made her choose these images over other examples, or order them next to each other in this specific way? The arrangements remind us that visual archives, although ostensibly treasure chests of truth, have chance and arbitrariness at their core.
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine