Taryn Simon was born in New York in 1975. Her artistic medium consists of three integrated elements: photography, text, and graphic design.
Simon’s Birds of the West Indies (2013-14) is a two-part body of work, whose title is taken from the definitive taxonomy of the same name by the American ornithologist James Bond. Ian Fleming, an active bird watcher, appropriated the author’s name for his novels now well-known protagonist. This co-opting of a name was the first in a series of substitutions and replacements that would become central to the construction of the Bond narrative. The first element of the work is a photographic inventory of the women, weapons and vehicles of James Bond films made over the past fifty years. The images comprise an index of interchangeable variables used in the production of fantasy. Testing the seductive surfaces of popular cinema, Simon continues her artistic process of revealing the hidden infrastructures of cultural constructs. In the second element of the work, Simon casts herself as the ornithologist James Bond, identifying, photographing, and classifying all the birds that appear within the 24 films comprising the James Bond franchise. The result is a taxonomy of birds not unlike the original Birds of the West Indies. In this case, the birds are categorized by locations both actual and fictional: Switzerland, Afghanistan, North Korea, as well as the mythical settings of Bond’s missions, such as the Republic of Isthmus and SPECTRE Island. Simon’s discoveries often occupy a liminal space between reality and fiction; they are confined within the fictional space of the James Bond universe and yet wholly separate from it.
The Picture Collection (2013) was inspired by the New York Public Library’s picture archive, which contains 1.2 million prints, postcards, posters, and printed images. It is the largest circulating picture library in the world, organized according to a complex cataloging system of over 12,000 subject headings. Since its inception in 1915, it has been an important resource for writers, historians, artists, filmmakers, fashion designers, and advertising agencies. Diego Rivera, who made use of it for his legendary mural for Rockefeller Center, Man at the Crossroads (1934), noted how the scope of this picture collection might go on to shape contemporary visions of America. In this work, Simon highlights the impulse to archive and organize visual information, and points to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image gathering. Simon sees this extensive archive of images as a precursor to Internet search engines. The Picture Collection was developed in response to the online database Image Atlas (2012), created by Simon with computer programmer Aaron Swartz. Image Atlas investigates cultural differences and similarities by indexing top image results for given search terms across local search engines throughout the world.