Curator Drew Sawyer talks to photographer Tina Barney about printing big pictures, using her family as subjects, and crossing over into the fashion world.
Over the last four decades, photographer Tina Barney has captured her family and friends on film, recording moments both intimate and formal with an acute awareness of how people act around each other. On the occasion of “Tina Barney: Photographs,” on view this past winter at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Drew Sawyer, William J. and Sarah Ross Soter Associate Curator of Photography at the Columbus Museum of Art, spoke with Barney about her process, the photographs at NOMA, and showing photos in both museums and magazines.
Drew Sawyer: A lot of your work, including the pieces recently on view at the New Orleans Museum of Art, has to do with social gatherings, whether with family or friends.
Tina Barney: The photographs in New Orleans, which people think of most of the time, I did quite a long time ago.
DS: Of course, I thought we’d go back to one of your earliest images, The Suits, from 1977. It’s a closely cropped black-and-white photograph of several men wearing seersucker suits at a party—one of them is holding a coupe glass. Since you can’t see their faces, the viewer focuses on these other details. What initially drew you to this subject? I know at the time you were not living on the East Coast, where you’re from.
TB: I basically was thinking about gestures and the way that people stand in proximity to each other, on the East Coast as opposed to the West Coast, and how you can identify where someone comes from according to the way they stand or the way they hold themselves, what they wear and how they’re wearing it. That picture was a lot about that. I cut the heads off of the people because I didn’t want it to be a portrait. I wanted the viewer to focus on those things that were interesting to me.
DS: Can you talk a little bit about how you moved into taking pictures?
TB: Well, I think it had to do both with learning about the history of photography in general and then starting to collect on a very small scale. That happened on the East Coast. And then I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, and started taking classes—never thinking of myself as an artist—and learning how to print. I was never interested in any pictures I took in Sun Valley, and I would go back to the East Coast in the summer. I began noticing the differences, going back and forth from those two coasts, and realizing how different the world that I lived in, the world that I came from, was from other places.
When I started, I would take pictures that were sort of in the back of my mind. They had a focus. In some of the pictures you see in the book Theater of Manners, I’m starting to focus on family, relationships between family members, and again, the spaces between the people when they’re together in a social space. As I started to fine-tune my subject matter, I struggled with directing, wanting the narrative to have a specific point, and that’s when I started telling people what to do, in 1979 or 1980. It took until 1980 to have something very specific happening as far as the narrative was concerned.
I went to a 4x5 camera and that was like going backwards technically, realizing that the exposures were long and people couldn’t move. I had to deal with the technical stuff, which slowed me down. It was like a weight on my leg. After all that time trying to do something with narrative, I had to catch up with the technical part.
DS: Talking about moving into these larger-format cameras and larger-format pictures, right now I’m looking at Sunday New York Times, 1982, which was included in “Big Pictures by Contemporary Photographers” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1983. What made you interested in exploring a larger format?
TB: I think it has to do with my first teacher, Peter de Lory. He made his own trays, and it was the first time that I saw a picture that was probably 30 by 40 inches. So I started—with a 35mm camera—learning how to make large prints because of him. And then, as I was studying in class, a woman walked into the Sun Valley Center and said, “You know you can make your pictures bigger.” So I found out that there was a lab in California that made them even bigger. And it just was too much fun to see what happened when you blew a picture up that big. But making them big doesn’t make them better. The scale had to make sense. There had to be a reason to make them four by five feet. After Cindy Sherman started doing it, it became the big thing. At the Walker Art Center, in 1982, I saw my first Cindy Sherman work blown up big, and it probably wasn’t even four by five feet, but it was bigger than anything I’d ever seen. It made me think, Oh wow, I wanna try that too. But then it became a fad, and the “Big Pictures” show was proof of that.
DS: Your work is often talked about in the social documentary tradition—the flip side of somebody like Walker Evans. He was mostly looking at rural and poor subjects, while you’ve photographed urban and more elite subjects and their social settings, often drawn from your family and social circle.
TB: The reason most of us—from Larry Sultan to whomever—photographed our families was because they were there. We didn’t have to go out and search or walk the streets. The people were there, and I knew them. That’s what made them so personal: I knew the people; I knew the house; I knew everything in that space. It wasn’t foreign. It was a language that I spoke fluently. It had nothing to do with commenting on class. That was not something I thought of. This was my home. This was my life.
DS: I didn’t want to suggest that it was a comment on class because I don’t think Walker Evans himself was necessarily commenting. He was just going out and photographing. It’s interesting that Walker Evans was also using a large-format camera. What does it mean to claim something as documentary, when you’re working with a large-format camera that takes a longer time and that requires more collaboration with your subjects? I’m curious if you thought of your work in terms of a documentary tradition, or more in terms of stage photography. You mentioned Cindy Sherman earlier, and at this time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, more artists were turning towards staged, theatrical scenarios.
TB: I didn’t say to myself, Oh, I’m making staged photography. I was interested in making a very complex and interesting picture. And in order to do that, I had to direct. I knew that shooting inside was different because most people couldn’t use a view camera inside. They weren’t going to drag in nine bags of equipment or ask people to stand still.
DS: I’m now looking at The Reception from 1985. Could you talk about this photograph in particular?
TB: It’s kind of a miracle, the whole thing. To get all those things happening at the same time—not in my wildest dreams could I have ever hoped for anything as good as that. So that’s a lot of luck. (laughter) But also the setting’s fantastic and what people are wearing is fantastic.
This is at my sister’s wedding, at a family member’s apartment in New York City. I was comfortable with the place and the people that were around. And I went into that room where my sister was and she happened to get up.
DS: You took the photograph as she was getting up, or did you redirect her?
TB: I did not direct her to do that. She just happened to get up. I didn’t plan that.
DS: What is also so great about the picture is the way in which the work, compositionally, seems to have so many art historical references, and then there are these masterworks on the wall in the background.
TB: That is, again, coincidence. It just happened to have a great painting in the background. That there were plants, my sister getting up and doing that, it’s just absolute luck. But the fact that I know that that’s interesting, some people might’ve missed that.
DS: You’re not like other photographers, who use 35mm cameras. You’re not taking many, many pictures. For Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, 1987, is that just the one photo you took, or did you take a few?
TB: Oh, no. In the ’80s and ’90s, I took quite a few pictures in each shoot, 20 or 30 pieces of film, and that’s a lot for that camera. I often forget to mention—and it’s really important—that I use that camera in a different way, because I’m so fast. And I could afford film, too. A lot of photographers couldn’t afford to just go bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. They had to count how much they were spending. But I knew it took a lot to get what I was looking for. It was almost like I had a motor drive on my 4x5.
DS: That’s what is so fascinating about your work in general: It’s large-format photography, which requires a longer exposure, but it looks like a snapshot.
TB: You have no idea how fast I use that camera. One of the biggest reasons I use an assistant is so that I can shoot fast. And you can’t do that by yourself. So I go bam, and he hands me another one. Then I go bam and he turns it over, bam…like that.
DS: At what point did you start doing commercial and editorial work?
TB: That started in about 1993 or 1994, when an Englishman named Michael Collins who worked for London’s Daily Telegraph asked me to do jobs for the paper. I had never done that before, but it started a career that has gone on till today. I still do quite a bit in fashion, too.
DS: I think many people are familiar with the Tory Burch campaigns. Recently, the industry has swung in a direction in which a lot of photographers—art photographers, people who consider themselves artists—are less afraid of doing editorial work. In the early 1990s, you were one of the few people making that crossover. Do you see a separation between those? Do you mind printing a work that you originally produced for an editorial and exhibiting it in a gallery or a museum?
TB: When people hire me, they hire me to do what I do. They want me to make it look like what my own work looks like, and sometimes that’s harder to do than you think. Each job is different. It depends. If it’s for a fashion client, I have to pay attention to the clothes, but basically they want me to do what I do.
You know, The Reunion, 1999, which was on view at the museum in New Orleans, was an editorial job. That was for W Magazine, who I worked for, for quite a long time. And my book Players, which is my favorite, has a lot of the editorial and commercial work in it. Once in a while, a commercial or editorial picture will seep out, and I’ll use it, but not very often. Most of the time, they don’t fit into what else I’m doing. And that’s why I did Players, because I realized people hadn’t seen much of this work.
DS: You mentioned in a lecture I attended that you’re also experimenting with digital photography.
TB: There’s a real learning curve on it. There are good parts. The camera is so light, even though I still use lights and a tripod, but there’s flexibility for the camera to go in places that I couldn’t go in before. It’s really fun. The downside is I still will always be in love with analogue large-format photography.
DS: I imagine, though, it’s harder and harder to find the film and the equipment.
TB: I can’t use that as an excuse. It’s only more expensive.
DS: Can you talk a little bit about your current projects?
TB: Oh, well the digital work is a project that I’m calling Athletic Rituals. I had to think of a subject matter, and I thought of sports. It’s fast. It’s more physical. The sports range from roller derby to bungee jumping to skating, riding, you name it. All different kinds of things. It’s been very difficult to find the right situation. A lot of trial and error. A lot of boring pictures. A lot of pictures that look like Patagonia ads.
Apart from the context, the football field and the soccer field are very boring. Also, skiing in the snow was very boring, so I went back to the lodge and photographed more interiors. It’s taken me this time to figure out, you know, the setting, the right setting. I realized I keep going back to portraiture, so the human being in the context of sports is really what it comes down to. What’s become so boring to me is the scouting and finding a place and then getting the permission. You know that’s becoming a problem. It takes so much longer.
That’s why I went back to my family. Another project I’m calling Youth. I started it last summer with the 8x10 and they’re portraits of teenagers, basically the grandchildren of the people I photographed in Theater of Manners. I’ve always been interested in the new generations.
DS: And those are all formally posed portraits?
TB: Yeah, they are. I was very insecure about the digital project and I thought, I don’t know if this is gonna work. I thought I’d better have a backup plan. And there was something important about working very slowly in a very technical way—going back to that, with lighting, a studio-like feeling and very scientific.
“Tina Barney: Photographs” was on view December 10, 2015 – February 28, 2016 at the New Orleans Museum of Art (1 Collins Diboll Circle).