Taryn Simon herself does not like to be photographed. Her preferred pose is a street urchin’s wary glare at the camera, arms flat by her sides. At 36, she is tall and waiflike, with an intense magnetism she tries to disguise with shy shuffling or shatter with moments of teenage glee. At five feet nine, she claims to weigh 120 pounds, though she looks bonier. She cuts her own hair, not often—it reaches to her waist. She favors long skirts, mud-colored sweaters, pebbled taupe tights, men’s lace-up shoes, sometimes a vintage dress—usually not a flattering one. Her uniform is a long skirt with suspenders like those on toddlers’ clothes—custom-made by a tailor whose name she either presses on you or refuses to reveal, depending on her mood—that add to the impression of a wayward Thirties schoolgirl.
She’s also nervous on planes, repulsed by sushi, and has stopped going to movies in New York for fear of bedbugs. “Taryn is more frightened of sleeping alone in a house in the country in the U.S.,” says her best friend, Juman Malouf, “than of any of the dangerous places she goes in the world.”
Despite Simon’s efforts to deflect attention, men break off in midsentence when they catch a glimpse of her—mud sweater, taupe tights, long black hair—and lose their composure. “She’s why we have the expression ‘mind fuck,’” says one smitten male, who asked not to be named. “First there’s the flashing beacon of the intellect from across a room; then you find this stunning woman, her beauty magnified by her intensity and intelligence.”
Simon was born in 1975 and raised in Locust Valley, on New York’s Long Island—the second of three daughters of Susan and Richard Simon. When Taryn was 11, Richard, an adventurous entrepreneur who spent years in Thailand with the State Department and then on business of his own, took her to the hill-tribe villages in northern Thailand to see something “radically different.” A tireless amateur photographer, he bought her the 4x5 Sinar she uses today, and he’s still the one she calls when she gets into trouble overseas, or even in New York City.
At Brown University, Simon studied semiotics, while also taking photography classes at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her Brown classmate Nico Baumbach, who teaches film at Columbia University, remembers helping Simon during their junior year abroad with an assignment to take a photo in a Paris location chosen at random from a map. Simon decided to photograph herself showering in the street. “Her photo stuff was always an event,” Baumbach says. “She had to be in some kind of physical danger; there had to be some kind of risk. What attracted me to Taryn back then—and still does—is that you don’t ever know what’s going to happen around her.”