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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Review The Color of a Flea’s Eye Photographs by Taryn Simon Reviewed by Blake Andrews “We live in a world in which we are bombarded by images. Thousands of them hit our eyeballs every day through various channels: TV, Internet, video games, print, vernacular reality, and good old-fashioned photographic prints. The deluge is so constant that it might be hard to remember a time when reality’s mediation was less pervasive..."

The Color of a Flea’s Eye. By Taryn Simon.
The Color of a Flea’s Eye
Photographs by Taryn Simon

Editions Cahiers d'Art, 2020. 460 pp., 13¼x10".

We live in a world in which we are bombarded by images. Thousands of them hit our eyeballs every day through various channels: TV, Internet, video games, print, vernacular reality, and good old-fashioned photographic prints. The deluge is so constant that it might be hard to remember a time when reality’s mediation was less pervasive. But that period was not so long in the past. Just a century ago, the flood of graphic arts was a mere trickle. Image encounters were far less commonplace, and the few that circulated in popular culture did so in a haphazard fashion, with no central repository to archive or distribute them efficiently. Someone hunting pictures of, say a boa constrictor or a flea’s eye, would have few resources.

To help alleviate the situation The New York Public Library organized The Picture Collection in 1915. This was a dedicated room on the third floor of the library’s mid-Manhattan branch on 5th Ave, which housed a plethora of physical images. Photos, drawings, posters, and diagrams of all types were clipped from disused materials, affixed to card stock, and carefully filed away. The sources ranged from famous to anonymous. All were mixed together, each item generically labeled by category and subcategory, e.g., Snakes — Boa. Google Image Search was still a few generations in the future, but New Yorkers of the time could implement their own primitive version by submitting keyword image requests through the library. Once filled, they could check out the materials just as they would books.

The Picture Collection quickly became popular, growing in size each year. At its mid-century peak, it circulated over a half million images annually, each researched by hand. Eventually, the demand outstripped the staff’s fulfillment ability, and public hours were trimmed to make time for internal reassortment. Decades later, The Picture Collection remains the largest physical picture library in the world, although the more valuable items no longer circulate.

If you find the early history of The Picture Collection arcane and fascinating within the current context of the digital revolution, you’re not alone. Taryn Simon was captivated too. She eventually devoted eight years to its systematic study. As with every photo project undertaken by Simon, there were no half measures. Her past books are consistently well researched, dense, and immense. Weighing in at 7 pounds, 13 inches tall, and with 460 pages, The Color Of A Flea’s Eye may be the largest one yet. With a leatherette cover and quiet mid-century typeface, the spine of this massive tome looks like something one might find buried in the stacks of an old library. It might be my imagination, but its pages even smell like an old library book, with a faint musty odor. The scent of ancient tales. The cover’s design is more contemporary, but only slightly. It’s a rote listing of subcategories from The Picture Collection.

Like its subject, the book’s reach is ambitious. There is a lot of ground to cover since 1915. The book is cleanly divided into color-coded sections to help maintain some order. Introductory essays by Joshua Chang and Tim Griffin provide a historic overview of the collection and Simon’s connection to it. Then the plates commence with a selection of folder contents drawn from The Picture Collection. With over a million items distributed over 12,000 categories, only a small fraction can be shown. But the sheer range photographed by Simon — Beards & Mustaches, Explosions, Gavels, Rear Views, etc — hint at its gargantuan scale. They are reproduced in the book as tipped-in plates, each one showcasing several dozen small artifacts.

The next section reproduces archival documents surrounding the collection. The archive’s narrative core comes into sharper focus through the figure of Romana Javitz. As the head of the collection in its early heyday from 1929 to 1968, she was chiefly responsible for its success and later organizational form. Javitz had a hand in most of the collection’s dealings during her long tenure, and at this point, her name is an integral piece of its history. Simon spends hundreds of pages sharing a chronology of archival documents. They primarily span the mid-part of the 20th century, and all putatively concern the collection. But as a subtext, they provide a broad sketch of Javitz, her professional life and friendly correspondence. There is a note from Lewis Hine to Javitz bemoaning his financial straits. A letter from Roy Stryker enquires into the possibility that Javitz might store FSA photos at The Picture Collection (it would eventually acquire 40,000). A multi-month exchange between Javitz and Dorothea Lange gives an inside view into the nuts and bolts of art acquisition. These old letters are collected alongside less personal items, such as ledgers, agendas, picture request forms, and other daily ephemera. Taken as a whole, they provide a wonderful history of both The Collection and Javitz, their two paths inextricably intertwined.

Following this is a sampling of photographs from the collection. Although it’s just a smattering, there are enough to convey the collection’s heavyweight importance. Most of the mid-century luminaries are here: Adams, Stieglitz, Shahn, Evans, Lange, Parks, Levitt, Bubley, Capa, and so on, sometimes in varied multiples. Their prints are shown front and back, revealing the organizational imprints often stamped on verso. This is as close to seeing them as most readers will get, since the actual photos were deemed too valuable for general circulation, and were shuffled off to a specialized photographic collection in 1982. The last section in the book is an alphabetical listing of The Picture Collection subheadings — all 12,000 of them in tiny print. If this last section seems excessive — will anyone actually read all of them? — it is in keeping with Simon’s general modus operandi. To repeat, her books take no half measures.

The Color Of A Flea’s Eye (the phrase adopted from an early keyword request to The Picture Collection) arrives in a world in which image research has become a routine fact of life. For perhaps the first time in history, virtually any image is now locatable within seconds, at the click of a button. Looking back, the idea of physically archiving and searching such material feels rather quaint. And yet The Picture Collection survives to the present day; patrons still visit the library and check out materials. And, one wonders what the bookmakers of tomorrow might think of Simon's book. How might they approach or analyze our current systems of image organization? Will we leave any physical pictures for posterity? The future is yet to be written, but today The Color of a Flea's Eye is a landmark study and historical marker.

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Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at