Taryn Simon – Life in Details

This is the second guest post by fellow blogger Damien Shalley. AKA the cryptic-contributor, he introduces himself again in his own words:

Damien Shalley thinks Jolt Cola would be a better product if it contained more caffeine.  He failed statistics at Griffith University (twice) and doesn’t regret it.  If he went into hiding he would go to Paraguay, because everybody who went looking for him would probably go to Uruguay.  He believes that Ozzy Osbourne is a nice fellow, just misunderstood.  His favourite hobbies include surviving the weekend and shirking his responsibilities.

If you are a reader and follower and have your own piece to submit to Bear Skin, don’t hesitate to contact me directly jennifer@bearskin.org


Taryn Simon – Life in Detail(s)

by Damien Shalley


Human beings seem naturally inclined to organise things; our families, our work, our surroundings, our governance.  We develop systems and processes that help us to live safely and productively.  In doing so, we produce “artefacts” – records, objects and structures (both physical and organisational) – that provide evidence of our daily existence.  Taryn Simon documents and catalogues these human artefacts (and human lives) in a very compelling way.  She demonstrates, through her technically superior and artistically beautiful photography, something of the “soul”.  She takes delight in detail, and in doing so, shines a light on the complex world in which we live.



Simon currently describes herself as a “cataloguing documentarian”, a description that succinctly captures the essence of her work.  She is also, however, an art photographer of the highest calibre and has been collected by the most famous galleries in the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Tate Modern and the Pompidou in France.  She is represented by the legendary US gallery owner Larry Gagosian (Damien Hirst’s New York agent), and in the U.K. she is championed by the enormously influential connoisseur Michael Wilson.  Wilson co-produces the James Bond film franchise and is regarded as Britain’s most significant private collector of photography.

Favoured by celebrities and feted by the media, Simon retains an almost tranquil humility.  She is modest and remains motivated by intellectual curiosity.  She is a wife and mother (she is married to film director Jake Paltrow) and regards her family as her bedrock.  Her most recent exhibit, “Birds of the West Indies” (2014) was critically acclaimed by the US art establishment and might well have been the closest thing to a blockbuster art opening since the days of Andy Warhol.(Steven Spielberg attended, as did current A-list celebrities like Jared Leto and Elle Fanning.  This gives some indication of her fame).

Her work is now more “spare”.  It is carefully arranged and photographed in a naturalistic way to highlight not just obvious features but also the inherent integrity of the subject, whether human, animal or object.

“Certainly the progression of my work has very much been a shedding of style and embellishment.”

[O’Hagan, S. (2011)  Taryn Simon: the woman in the picture, The Guardian].

Instead, she creates “visual inventories” – of people, of the things people create, of life itself.


Simon was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 2001 and in 2003 produced her first published work, “The Innocents” –photographs of people previously imprisoned for crimes they did not commit.  Now free, Simon’s subjects are photographed in places that reinforce that freedom; in their homes, in open spaces, in their favourite places. This work has been described by some commentators as redemption by photography.  Many of these wrongly convicted people were impacted by the misuse of photography by law enforcement officials using it to manufacture false or misleading evidence.  In this work, Taryn Simon turns the tables.




In 2007, Simon unveiled one of her best-known collections, “An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar.”

This insightful work combined an intriguing concept with the beginnings of a new and unfamiliar approach from Simon.  Eschewing the “art house” style she had previously favoured, Simon opted for unvarnished objectivity.  This collection represents the genesis of her “cataloguing style”, albeit undeveloped.  (She would soon take this concept much further).  The pictures are not stylised, they simply “are”.  Simon depicts with a certain detachment some of the hidden or lesser seen realities of our world.  She unearths the unseen, unknown spaces and unfamiliar aspects of our culture.  She becomes a “social archaeologist” uncovering and shedding light on our artefacts, reflecting our existence back at us through the lens of her camera.  (In doing so, she creates another “artefact”: an archival photographic record for future examination).


What does it look like when a person is cryogenically frozen? (See above)  What does nuclear waste in storage look like? (See below).  Simon is one of the only private citizens to have ever photographed the inner workings of an American nuclear waste facility.   Her amazing photograph of glowing plutonium rods in storage (forming a shape reminiscent of the outline of the USA on a map) is one of her most famous works.



She also invites us (safely) into a bio-containment laboratory with test animals in cages; she shows us a human cage in the form of an exercise cell for death row inmates; she shows us a bottle of live HIV virus; she allows us to view a predatory Great White shark in an expansive and ominously dark ocean; she gives us the opportunity to witness the forging of a Smith and Wesson handgun frame.  (Incidentally, despite a formal request, Disneyland would not allow Simon official photographic access to any part of their operation, behind-the-scenes or otherwise.  Some truths might be too much to bear).  Australian Fairfax journalist Dan Rule in The Age (Melbourne)  saw these photographs as

high-definition visuals… photographs [that] defy their gritty, documentarian sensibilities”

[Rule, D. “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar”,The Age, October 23, 2010].

This is Taryn Simon presenting raw, hyper-reality.  Anyone looking for the luminous photography of a Simon contemporary like Sally Mann should look elsewhere.  Regardless, this is a fascinating collection which provokes thoughtful examination of the lives we lead in western society.


death row

live HIV


 The “American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” exhibition was a major success and the genesis of Taryn Simon as “art photography superstar”.  Commentator Marcus Bunyan opined on November 9, 2010 in his Art Blart web journal [http://artblart.com] that Simon’s “Index of the Hidden” photographs “excavate meaning by bringing the shadow into the light in order to index our existence, to make the hidden less frightening and more controllable.”  This seems to be a universal human desire: to understand our world and, to whatever degree possible, control it.  With “American Index”, Simon seems to show that she understands, and is responding to this desire through her photography.  However her subtext seems clear; one can catalogue life to the greatest extent possible but still never truly control it.


2010 saw the release of Simon’s “Contraband”, a collection of 1075 photographs of items seized at JFK airport, New York.  From drugs to fake cosmetics, prohibited foods and counterfeit BWM badges; everything that human beings consume, trade or desire is here. The mundane and obscure take their place amongst the uncommon and valuable.  (Just as in human society?)  The pictures are spare and speak for themselves.

 reality of truth






This work was presented at the lauded Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills and was described as a “visual inventory” or photographic catalogue. It was critically well-received in general, but there were “objectors”.  Some saw dull, lifeless photography that needed the accompanying (lengthy) text included with each piece to have any meaning.  Some questioned whether her photography was really art at all, or whether it was simply “technique”.  “Art” is commonly described as pure human expression and this is widely understood within the arts community.  One could easily dismiss these photographs – or photography in general – as a technical discipline quite removed from “art”.  One could also justifiably argue that Simon demonstrates artfulness by designing projects which examine specific themes (i.e. things hidden from view) and combines them with almost technically perfect photographic execution.  Art, like beauty, may well be in the eye of the beholder.

In 2011, Simon presented “A Living Man Declared Dead.”  This exhibition saw her examine bloodlines (she traced 18 family bloodlines across the globe), including those of people whose families had experienced disputes over inheritances.  Arguments over money, homes and land – “financial territory”, essentially – had caused one of the subjects she was observing, to be officially declared “dead” by a relative so that the relative in question could gain a greater share of their blood-relation’s deceased estate.  This is human behaviour that, although we would like to think does not occur, is actually all too common.  Those who did not wish to participate in the project for whatever reason (the “missing” and the “dead” figuratively and literally) are represented in the photographs as blank spaces.

For this exhibition, Simon presented what have been previously been described as “neutral portraits”.  These are photographs of individuals – human beings from across the globe – arranged in scientific grids against white backgrounds.  It almost represents a taxonomic key of human beings related by blood – a genetic “catalogue”.  Her emergence as a “cataloguing documentarian “was now fully realised.  Or was it?  More evolution was to follow.







Simon is most definitely a documentarian.  But she creates much more than visual inventories.  It has previously been argued (quite reasonably) that she is also a reporter, as well as a classic portrait artist.  Her work is most definitely rooted in the real world and much of it very well could be defined as portraiture.  More abstract commentators – cerebral types with a bent towards the ethereal – have described her as the living embodiment of conceptualism.  Her concepts, realised through a camera lens, deliver a powerful emotional effect on viewers.  Decide for yourself.

Taryn Simon cemented her place in the “photography as fine art” sphere when she was one of three guest editors selected to produce “Wallpaper” magazine’s October 2012 edition.  She chose as her theme “picture collections” and produced pieces including collations of celebrity photo magazine covers and compilations of photographs of highways and expressways.  Interestingly, the expressway photographs include stills indicating the impacts of freeways and motor transport on human and animal life.  This is Taryn Simon, after all – meaning seems to permeate all of her work, even for an “art culture bible” like “Wallpaper”.

wallpaper tsimon


 taryn simon_5


A significant dilemma for anyone identifying as an “artist” – particularly those delivering what might be regarded as “high-end” conceptual art photography – is whether or not casual viewers will be interested in looking at the work in question.  Will they want to patronise your exhibitions and will they understand your meaning, themes and subtext?  A common criticism of Taryn Simon’s work is that true depth of the themes she explores is sometimes lost on viewers.  The photographs she displays on gallery walls are generally accompanied by text, opening her up to criticism that the pictures do not speak for themselves.


Simon addressed this issue with her most recent exhibition, “Birds of the West Indies” (2014), a collection of photographs of props from James Bond films.  This exhibition introduced populist subject matter and successfully straddled the worlds of both documentary photography and fine art.  The props, appearing here out of context, take on a new life.  They offer insight into the human condition, they become objects of desire, theu become objects for examination in detail –not simply something which facilitates the action in a scene or enhances a plotline.  This exhibition met with wide acclaim from both the art establishment and the popular press.  For this exhibition, Simon viewed each James Bond film and extracted frames including images of birds. (All Bond films contain shots of birds as an acknowledgement to creator Ian Fleming; Fleming took the name of his famous secret agent from the ornithological book “Birds of the West Indies”- written by one real-life James Bond).


Switzerland (detail), Birds of the West Indies, 2014









 Taryn Simon, New York City, Path train subway, Tim Knox


GAGOSIAN GALLERY Opening of Taryn Simon: Birds of the West Indies


Life is important, a true gift.  We are told that a life of achievement is worthwhile, and that is generally true.  There is, however, enormous insight and power to be found in the quiet spaces in between our achievements.  Something essential to understanding our basic and universal humanity is contained within these spaces.  To know this is to truly relate to our human existence.  Simon truly “gets it” and delivers this through her images.

Taryn Simon elevates our existence.  She documents and and catalogues our world in an attempt to provide insight.  She truly is an artist – cataloguing in an attempt to create understanding, not in an attempt to control. There is something very hopeful in that.

Taryn Simon: Selected Major Exhibitions

  • Kunst-werke, Berlin, Germany, “Taryn Simon: The Innocents (and other works)” (2003)
  • Gagosian Gallery, Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, USA, “Taryn Simon: The Innocents” (2004)[29]
  • High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, “Taryn Simon: Nonfiction” (2006).
  • Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany, The Documentary Factor, (2006).
  • Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA, “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007).[31]
  • Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt, Germany, “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2007).
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA, “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography”, (2008).
  • Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris, France, (2009).
  • Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand “Taryn Simon: An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar” (2010).
  • Lever House, New York, NY, “Contraband”, (2010).[32]
  • Helsinki Art Museum, “Taryn Simon: Photographs and Texts”, 2012.[36]
  • Moscow House of Photography, Moscow, Russia, “Taryn Simon”, 2011.[37]
  • Tate Modern, London, England, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2011.[38]
  • Taryn Simon, Venice Biennale, Danish Pavilion, Venice, Italy, 2011.
  • Neue Nationalgalerie, Berlin, Germany, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2011.[39]
  • Galerie Almine Rech, Paris, France, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2012.[41]
  • Museum of Modern Art, New York, “A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters”, 2012.[42]
  •  Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles, “Birds of the West Indies”, 2014

Public Collections (Selected Major Works)


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