Critics’ Picks

Taryn Simon, Folder: Abandoned Buildings, 2012, archival ink-jet print, 47 x 62”. From The Picture Collection, 2012.

San Francisco

Taryn Simon

Berggruen Gallery
January 6–March 16, 2013

Taryn Simon’s photographic practice is well known for mining time and place, as well as for challenging the confines of the frame while weaving complex narratives. Yet her recent piece The Picture Collection, 2012, is somewhat of a departure. Though Simon continues her selection-based process, The Picture Collection commences with one of the most daunting information banks: the New York Public Library’s circulating Picture Collection, which consists of 1.2 million images from books, magazines, newspapers, postcards, and photos. It’s physical archive that was famously utilized as a research tool by Diego Rivera and Andy Warhol. Simon has parsed the archive’s 12,000 different subject headings, isolated forty-four, and chosen about one hundred images from each of these. While her selection of categories varies drastically, her configurations of its images are relatively standardized. Simon’s large frames encompass three to four horizontal rows of images from a particular archival folder. The photos are laid atop one another, in most instances revealing only the picture farthest to the right in its entirety. In Folder: Abandoned Buildings, for example, some images appear twice, but their specifics or points of reference can barely be made out from their edges. In fact, only in the three photos to the far right of the frame do we see abandoned buildings shown in full.

While Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2008–11, was structured like a book, using photos to trace family histories and texts that functioned like footnotes, with The Picture Collection she instead paints a portrait. The kinds of details that informed the episodic sagas of A Living Man are left out here, permitting viewers to glean just a rough sketch alluding to the varied pasts buried within each of the archival photos as they are squished together to convey an abundance, rather than being examined individually. Although it is frustrating that most of the images cover each other, Simon’s concealment pays homage to the mystery of this massive archive, reminding us how rarely we find anything so enigmatic in our accessibility-driven age of online search engines.