For The Color of a Flea’s Eye: The Picture Collection (2012-2020), Taryn Simon (and the Taryn Simon Studio) selected images from the New York Public Library‘s storied Picture Collection, collaged them onto large posters, and exhibited them in the library, alongside original images (recto and verso), indexes, purchase orders, acquisition and deaccession records, and the like. This large, heavy, volume is an exhibition-in-book-form sort of catalog of the work.

During my review of Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence, I had the (lunatic) thought to discuss their classic photobook in terms of Ariella Azoulay’s thoughts on archives (as related in the earliest chapters of Potential History, which I read most of very slowly over several months). Mistaking it for another book of pictures from a specific archive, I immediately pulled The Color of a Flea’s Eye off the to-review shelves, added it to the “next-up” pile, and a year or more later, here we are.

I’ve been pecking away at this review off and on for months and keep falling down wholly unrelated rabbit holes. In an attempt to right course, I’ll just list the facts.

The Color of a Flea’s Eye is organized into four sections: essays, artworks, documents, and photographs, plus indexes and whatnot. Essays from Joshua Chuang and Tim Griffin discuss the Pictures Collection itself and Simon’s use of it. Tipped-in reproductions of Simon’s collages, made from the contents of various Pictures Collection file folders, follow. These images are sort of hard for me to read: the individual pictures are way too small to see and most are mostly obscured. I suspect there is some rhyme and reason to these, but I sort of gave up looking for any hidden (or obvious) meaning before really coming to any particular conclusions. Correspondence between artists or patrons or contributors and Pictures Collection staff regarding accessions and usage make up the third section, which itself is nearly half of the book. The final section includes pictures removed from the Pictures Collection and transferred to the Photography Collection of the New York Public Library.

I found it interesting to read some of the correspondence. Much of it is only included because there are famous names attached, and it’s sorta fun to imagine the various individuals, read tone or emotion into their writings, and etc., and I won’t go into any of that nonsense here. The pictures that moved to the Photography Collection at the NYPL are mostly famous images from famous photographers that were sent to the Pictures Collection by the photographers (or their agents) long before fame was assured, and in order to preserve the work and get the pictures in front of some eyes. (I’m paraphrasing here, and the gifts were, in some cases, more or less calculated and interesting.) These pictures are easier to see, and I’d seen most before.

I expect Azoulay would have a (theoretical) field day with the catalog, as it’s clearly a double-dose of Imperialist violence. For the Pictures Collection, library staff take books from the discard pile, cut out “interesting” images, and file them away in various folders for perusal and withdrawal by library patrons, researchers, and pretty much anyone who wanders in. So not only did the Imperial Shutter capture whatever the original books showed, the Empire (or the Empire State’s major city’s public library) ripped pictures out of their original community and forced them into folders labelled ABAN (Abandoned buildings and towns) or EMBRO-Cwe (Embroidery — Crewel) or MOB (Mobiles) or PUNI (Punishments) or WATC (Watchmaking) or one of the hundreds of other folders, forming a second-order Imperial Shuttering. And not only that, researchers and others could borrow and purchase (and simply steal) pictures from the archive, perhaps to return them to the original community (with or without Imperialist Reparations), and mostly for uses that the photographers, subjects, and Imperial Agents could never have imagined. Going further, the library’s likely patrons performed a third or fourth order of violence: that of violence against an Imperial Archive, which is itself Imperial Violence against an archive, which was itself made up of Imperial Violence against whatever community from which the pictures themselves (the photographer, an Imperial Agent) stole and froze a microsecond of time, making this book—and the exhibition it came from—a fifth or sixth order of violence….

I’m partially sympathetic to this reading, and, yes, I misread Azoulay without any doubt. In fact—baring myself here—I gave up about 5/6th of the way through. I could make excuses, but I’m not going to bother. I hate myself for giving up on Unlearning Imperialism, and I’ve come to a point in my life where 1) I recognize the horrible things humans around the world have done, do daily, and will do in the future; 2) I recognize the importance of calling out bad action, regardless of who or what performs it, and especially for those entities in positions of power and privilege; and 3) I recognize that we wouldn’t be where we are (as Americans and as Humans) without our history: we can’t go back and change it, we can only move forward. And, sure, part of moving forward means making amends, and anyway, I think very poorly of myself and don’t need to read any more about how bad I am, how bad people who look like me are and were and will be. People that look like my darling, adorable wife are also involved in quite horrible things. People that look like my neighbors (some of them are of Arab, Chinese, Eritrean, Arab, and so on) also do and did and will do just horrible, despicable things. You know what, though? I’m not sure it’s entirely healthy to just rehash horror over and over again. Most all of us need to unlearn our childhood traumas and I, for one, need to focus on finding and unrooting the petrified forests in my own eyes before I start pointing out the speck of dust in yours, and I found Unlearning Imperialism to be mostly about self flagellation, at least when read by a middle aged white dude for pleasure, and I don’t need any help in that department.


The Pictures Collection at the New York Public Library is a strange thing. It’s been running for more than a hundred years, functioning something like a physical Google Image Search. I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I imagine it was wildly useful to various people throughout its history; on the other hand, the fact that they chopped up old books and magazines to create some portion of the collection kinda rubs me the wrong way. (And, again, none of this matters to the book.) Simon’s use of this archive to make her work sort of doubles or triples this discomfort, and I still paid whatever I paid for this book with more or less happiness.


The New York Public Library retains a nice web page about the exhibition, but is sold out of the book. Not to worry: new and used copies remain readily available, and given the size and quality of the book, prices are reasonable. I’m not sure how I learned of the book. I thought maybe Jorg Colberg put me on to it, but I can’t find mention of it on his website or Insta. It must have come to me in a marketing email and I jumped on it due to my passing interest in archives and all. The Color of a Flea’s Eye is not quite what I thought it was, if I recall, but it’s rather incredible for what it is. I plan to find a spot for it on the oversized shelves and will probably ignore it thereafter.

Apologies for this “review.” It’s not my best work and I’m just tired of working on it, tired of trying to come up with things to say, and so on. I’ve been quite out of the book reviewing game this year, and, like anything, I’ve forgotten some of what I knew, lost the ability to just rattle off something good-enough-sounding. Oh well.

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