For her first exhibition in San Francisco, photographer Taryn Simon delves into a unique archive to create a series of organized images about the organization of images. The Picture Collection contains photographs of the New York Public Library’s circulating image library, a collection of 1.2 million prints, photographs, posters, postcards, and illustrations. Within over 12,000 subject headings, Simon selected one folder at a time to spread out and photograph its contents. The resulting prints, squarely capturing the materials from above in what resemble analog search engine results, tread an intriguing line between impartial document and subjective presentation.

These large-scale photographs, hung throughout both floors of the John Berggruen Gallery, feature the contents of twenty different subject folders. So many of the elements in The Picture Collection are standardized (lighting within the photograph, scale within the photograph, size of the prints, type of framing and hanging apparatus) that smaller discrepancies emerge more dramatically over time spent in the exhibition.

In the wall text introducing this museum-like show, the NYPL Picture Collection is identified as a precursor to digital visual resources. By photographing the collection’s isolated organizational structures, Simon “highlights the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image gathering.” At the same time, she highlights her own hand, blurring the role of librarian and photographer. Is Simon presenting the whole folder or just part of it? Certain images are privileged with a position in the foreground; others are relegated to the background, emphasizing the subjectivity of the entire project. The compositions are artful, unique, and in the most satisfying moments of the show, linked directly to the content of the images.

Taryn Simon, The Picture Collection, installation view.

Folder: Express highways features photographs of cloverleaf interchanges, overpasses, and junctions all layered on top of each other in a centered mass. While other collections are displayed in neatly-defined rows, this grouping blends together into a confused system of roads, connected by their design and function within the American landscape. Similarly, Folder: Tug of war is arranged in two neat rows, mimicking its subject matter to create a continuous line of pulling across time and space.

The NYPL Picture Collection dates back to 1914, when the circulation department began saving and clipping images as a resource for the city’s burgeoning industries (namely advertising). For improved accessibility, the collection was organized within subject headings rather than the traditional biographical orientation, a radical move at the time. Over the years, the collection has been shaped by contributions from WPA artists, FSA photographers, local businesses, movie studios, as well as the physical process of cutting images from books and magazines.

Taryn Simon, Folder: Rear Views, 2012.

In the corners of each image, hand-written notes identify subject and source. Many of the notes are in the same handwriting, conjuring up wholly unrealistic imaginings of massive light-filled rooms where librarians sift through images, chew their pencils, and decide what goes where. Some folders appear to demonstrate universal human traits. The people in Folder: Waiting take on repeated, familiar poses expressing their anxiety and impatience. Folder: Handshaking contains mostly men engaged mid-pump, grinning toothily at each other. These commonalities raise a curious question: are images selected for inclusion because they resemble other, previously included images?

The Picture Collection delves into the history of a hyper-local but very public setting, exploring the possibility that long-standing conventions have given shape to a specific understanding of images. In another, parallel project, Simon has created a tool through which to analyze the world’s present relationship to images. In a project for The New Museum, Simon and the late Aaron Swartz created Image Atlas, an online index comparing image results for the same search term across local engines in 57 different countries, highlighting often surprising differences and similarities.

In many of Simon’s previous bodies of work, text plays an important role alongside her photographs, either to narrate the story of a wrongly convicted man (The Innocents) or bring bizarre and little-known things to light (An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar). In the case of Image Atlas and The Picture Collection, images are dictated by text. Going a step further, all text in The Picture Collection is supplied by the library itself. As a result, the most interesting elements in the exhibition hinge on examples of language’s imprecision, and the sometimes-humorous visual dissonance of double meanings. Just think about Folder: Accidents and Folder: Rear views and imagine the possibilities. The Picture Collection may represent an archive out of most San Franciscan’s everyday reach, but the series’ implications in terms of visual language and the subjectivity of images, is continually relevant.

The Picture Collection is on view at John Berggruen Gallery through March 2013. For more information visit

Picturing a Picture Collection: Taryn Simon at John Berggruen 14 April,2015Sarah Hotchkiss


Sarah Hotchkiss

Sarah Hotchkiss is KQED Arts’ Visual Arts Editor and a San Francisco-based artist. She watches a lot of science fiction, which she reviews in a semi-regular publication called Sci-Fi Sundays. Follow her at @sahotchkiss.

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