• The Color of a Flea's Eye: The Picture Collection

    In 1930 the Picture Collection at the New York Public Library received a user’s request for an image showing the color of a flea’s eye. Called upon by department stores, dictionary illustrators, journalists, school teachers, filmmakers, handbag designers, ministries of foreign countries, advertising agencies, barbers, and the U.S. military during strategic preparations for war, the Collection has served generations of an image-hungry public that have sifted through its storied contents in search of visual references of every conceivable kind.

    Individual folders labeled with subject headings as particular as “Air Raids,” “Pack Animals,” and “Wind” are crammed with images cut from disused books, newspapers, and magazines alongside prints, photographs, and film stills. The Picture Collection’s democratic systems of classification were designed to be responsive to its users, whose specific requests and interventions have determined its composition. The daily sorting, labeling, borrowing, and reclassifying of millions of physical images inform a crude algorithm by which raw materials have been digested and transmitted back into American culture, reshaping it in the process.

    For nearly a decade, Taryn Simon has immersed herself in the history of the Collection, combing through hundreds of letters, memos, and records that reveal an untold story of radical access to visual material long before the advent of Internet search engines. The forgotten, central figure who emerges from these documents is Romana Javitz, who instigated the Picture Collection’s growth and egalitarian values during her decades-long crusade as its superintendent. More than anyone, Javitz shaped the identity of the Collection through her trailblazing, nonhierarchical approach to images. She promoted the use of pictures as documents that needed to be put to work.

    Seeing voids in the mainstream recounting of the American story, Javitz built a vast repository of overlooked subjects. These unvarnished views included examples of the country’s folk art, portrayals of African American life, and documentation of the realities of the Great Depression in government-sponsored photographs surreptitiously donated to the Collection out of fear that Congress might suppress them. It was during Javitz’s tenure that photographers such as Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hine, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, and Dorothea Lange contributed their own pictures to the Collection. (These were removed from public circulation beginning in the 1980s when their cultural and marketplace value became apparent.) The Picture Collection also became a secret haven for artists like Diego Rivera, Joseph Cornell, and Andy Warhol, who infamously borrowed hundreds of pictures he never returned.

    Excavating Picture Collection subject folders such as “Broken Objects,” “Rear Views,” and “Waiting Rooms,” Simon physically arranged their contents into overlapped arrays and photographed them. The act of photography suspended the Collection’s flux, making explicit the unexpected meanings derived from its accidental juxtapositions. These mash-ups reveal the Picture Collection to be an inadvertent recorder of changing social mores, disclosing latent fault lines of gender, race, and power. At the same time, they point to the invisible hands behind seemingly neutral systems of image gathering, locating an unlikely futurity in the past.