Taryn Simon is a multidisciplinary artist who works in photography, text, sculpture and performance. She was born and raised in New York, where she has been working since her graduation from Brown University in 1997. Informed by extensive research, Simon’s work investigates the implications of power and cultural infrastructures in the modern world.
Simon’s work shows a trajectory of her interest in documentary, as evidenced by her photographic projects from the 2000s. In 2002, The Innocence Project supported her to travel across the US to photograph and interview individuals who had been wrongly convicted. Titled ‘The Innocents’, the collection of portraits appeared as a book alongside the interviews and commentary from civil rights attorneys Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck. Simon then earned critical acclaim for An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar, published in 2007: a catalogue of images of sites that are inaccessible or unknown to the public. Through her large-format photographs of nuclear waste capsules in the southeast of Washington, a Scientology screening room, and the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan, Simon has compelled the audience to face the dark realities beneath the surface of America: realities they are oblivious to or simply choose to ignore.
By organising her photographs through a laborious process of classification and categorisation that resembles archiving, Simon highlights the insignificant and the overlooked. In Birds of the West Indies (2013–14) (Part 2)—named after the taxonomy of the American ornithologist James Bond—Simon followed Bond’s taxonomical footsteps in documenting and identifying all the birds in the 24 James Bond franchise movies. Working meticulously from screenshots taken of the birds’ split-second appearances, Simon ended up with 331 identifications. Image after image of birds force the viewer’s gaze away from the flamboyance of the films to focus on the forgotten avians. Like the sheer number of birds in James Bond films (and despite the dominating presence of the franchise), the entities overshadowed by the mainstream—be they human lives, plants or animals—must be innumerable.
Simon’s photographic investigation of cultures extends outside the US. A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2008–11) traces 18 family bloodlines, each with an unusual narrative. Ranging from the bloodline of a living Indian man who was declared dead in official records to that of Hans Frank—the personal legal advisor to Adolf Hitler—the series weaves complex narratives together with Simon’s characteristic archiving system.
Similarly, An Occupation of Loss—a performance piece inaugurated in September 2016 at the Park Avenue Armory, New York—invited more than 30 professional mourners from different parts of the world to perform grieving rituals inside 11 concrete towers. Represented cultures included Cambodia, China, Greece and Ghana. The performance paid respect to the differences ways in which cultures cope with life and death, and to humankind’s universal concern for proper farewells. Alongside the performance, Simon also compiled into a catalogue the petitions sent to the US government to obtain each mourner’s visa. Many were denied, prompting The New York Times to comment, ‘It might be easier to get a soul to heaven than to get a professional mourner to New York City.’ The US government had unknowingly played an active role in the creation of the work. An Occupation of Loss also took on a sociopolitical meaning when, following the 2016 presidential election a few months later, the country’s immigration laws began to shift drastically.
One of the most important photographers of her generation, Simon has exhibited in the US, Europe and China. In 2015, she exhibited in the 56th Venice Biennale. Permanent collections include The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tate Modern, Whitney Museum of American Art, Centre Pompidou and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. She is a Guggenheim Fellow and a recipient of the 2017 Photo London Master of Photography, which is awarded to a leading contemporary photographer.