© Tina Barney/Courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.
For many photographers, conversations with other photographers—be they heroes, mentors or friends—are an important part of their professional lives. They critique and inspire each other creatively; share information about technique and craft; debate the future and rehash the past; commiserate about challenges, perhaps argue; and they learn.
We asked a handful of photographers whom they would like to meet and talk with. We wanted to let PDN readers listen in on these conversations between some of the most influential people in photography, whose work spans generations and genres. We think these exchanges offer insights into the past, present, and future of photography.
Tina Barney’s images were exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art show “Big Pictures” in 1983 and in the Whitney Museum Biennial in 1987. She has had solo shows at museums and galleries around the world. Her books include Theater of Manners (1997), The Europeans (2005) and Players (2011). She is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Award. Her editorial work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, W, The Daily Telegraph and other publications.
Winner of the Aperture Emerging Artist award in 2007 and the Nikon Storytelling award, Gillian Laub has shot for The New York Times Magazine, Time, Newsweek, New York and other publications. Her fine art has been exhibited internationally and is represented by Bonni Benrubi Gallery. Her monograph, Testimony, was published in 2007.
Barney, who lives in New York City, and Gillian Laub, who is based in New York City, met in New York in April. To hear audio excerpts from their conversation, see Tina Barney: On Her Beginnings, and Overcoming Obstacles (Audio).
Gillian Laub: I grew up in a very privileged, sheltered suburban life in Westchester, New York. The last thing that I ever wanted to photograph was my family. For me, photography was the passport into another world, a world that my mother wanted to shelter me from.
When I went to photography school, I went back to photograph one of the families in Martinique that I had photographed while I was on vacation with my family. I thought it was amazing you could gain such intimacy with people that you don’t know. At the same time I was invited to a family friend’s wedding and I decided that the only way that I could get through [it] was to photograph it. That was really the first time that I photographed my family, but I didn’t take it seriously. When I went into the critique class I brought both sets of pictures, the family in Martinique and the pictures from the wedding. The response was overwhelming. They couldn’t believe I wasn’t photographing my family, they were so fascinated. I started to really look at work on family. Your work and Larry Sultan’s work and Richard Billingham’s work was revelatory for me. It gave me permission to take my family work seriously.
My question is: How did you know that territory that was so familiar to you actually made a subject for art?
Tina Barney: I started taking classes in 1973 in Sun Valley, Idaho, little workshops with all the top photographers in the country. I wasn’t interested in photographing in Idaho. I came back to Rhode Island in the summers and that location interested me much more. But I wasn’t taking myself that seriously. The pictures had a lot to do with the difference between this New England summer resort and living in Sun Valley, Idaho. I took pictures of rituals and of gestures of physical affection, still with a 35mm camera when I went on vacations. I did exactly the same thing you did. I photographed strangers in the places that I visited. And occasionally there would be pictures of my family in there.
I got the 4 x 5 in about 1981. I wanted the pictures to be about the house and the home. The next year I slowly tried to integrate people into the pictures. The picture that was sort of the breaking point was “Sunday New York Times.” Something about getting that picture gave me a license to believe in something that I thought was interesting.
What slowed the process was technical difficulties. The lighting, the camera, but also my insecurity about asking people to pose for me. That’s still true today.
Laub: In Social Studies, you mentioned that you were afraid of the American family becoming extinct. You didn’t want to see it go. I would love to hear more about that.
Barney: When I said that, I was 28 years old. I watched the life around me that to me was so perfect. I felt that friends my age didn’t realize how precious and extraordinary it was. It had to disintegrate and go away because it just was too perfect.
Laub: What was too perfect?
Barney: The extravagance and the material quality of the life that I had come from, the houses and the interior decoration and the clothes that we wore. What we did as a pastime was either going to a party or planning a party. It was all pretty decadent I thought. I was very serious. Even as a child I took things very seriously.
Laub: You didn’t start photographing until after you had children. Before you had children, did you know that you were going to be an artist?
Barney: No. My standards were so high for art. Though I took workshop after workshop, it took a long time for me to believe that I was an artist. My standards are still so high, it takes a long time for me to look at one of my pictures and say, “Okay that was good.” It could be ten years.
Laub: When did you get comfortable in the identity of an artist?
Barney: I think it had a lot to do with [gallery owner] Janet Borden and finding her so early. Having somebody I had respected say that they wanted to show your work. . . . Having that support my whole career [has] made a big difference.
Laub: You said you wouldn’t have become an artist if you had not gotten a divorce.
Barney: I think the main thing was moving to Sun Valley, being surrounded by very independently minded women, having the time to think on my own. My kids were growing up.
Laub: So you had to leave your home environment in order to see it really?
Barney: That wasn’t on purpose. But I don’t think that I would have made the kind of art that I did if I hadn’t left. It was like seeing your whole life from way up high and looking down.
Laub: You said, “People raise their children so much without ever asking why. Everything, all their customs are just passed down to them without ever asking why.” Are your photographs of your friends and extended family trying to draw attention to what’s missing?
Barney: I watched families decorate their Christmas Tree or buy the pumpkin for Halloween. Century after century we just keep doing these things and nobody questions, “Isn’t this kind of funny, chopping down the tree?” I think photographing is a way of marking these little rituals in amazement and wonder. All the pictures that I take have to do with the keeping up of tradition, of retaining history.
Laub: How do the people close to you feel about being photographed?
Barney: People ask me that all the time. I keep sort of giggling at how lucky I’ve been. I really think they are totally indifferent. Thank God. They never sat down and said: Could you explain this photograph to me?
Laub: Has there ever been a photograph that you made that you loved but you felt like it would be too revealing or exposing of a person?
Barney: Quite a lot. I probably could have made many more gut-wrenching pictures [but] I always somehow have to retain the dignity of the people in the pictures. I think it has to do with fear or guilt. I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody.
Laub: Interesting. Because I come from such an ethnically Jewish family, often times I am so worried that people are going to judge or criticize people that I am photographing.
Barney: That happened to me. The first time I got a review in Art Forum, a critic described the legs of a woman in the photograph and her varicose veins. I was so naïve. It was like it was hurting me. Then you just get used to it.
Laub: Do you consider your work social commentary?
Barney: That sounds like a superficial term. What interests me the most is sociology. I remember seeing a Margaret Mead film of a family sitting around a campfire in Papua New Guinea and the subtitles underneath were something to the effect of, “Your husband is such a bore and he never does any work and he sits home all day.” It’s universal. That’s the thing that fascinates me the most. No matter how fancy you are or how poor you are there are certain things that might be the same.
Laub: The gaze is so important. I feel like your pictures show your fascination with that.
Barney: That right there is a subject matter that interests me so much: the thing that happens between the artist and the subject. I think that’s a very interesting topic.
In the Eighties I had my portrait painted because I wanted to see the difference between having your portrait painted or being photographed. As I sat there for weeks, I realized the eyes in a portrait are an accumulation of that subject sitting there for days, weeks, years, whatever. Whereas in a photograph it’s a thirtieth of a second or a tenth of a second. I think that’s very interesting.
The other thing that fascinates me is that the tilt of the head can be a smidgen of an inch in one direction, which can change the entire attitude of the subject, or how the neck lies on the shoulders. How much is from the artist, or the way that subject grew up?
Laub: You’re considered the Mathew Brady of WASP culture but what I find fascinating is that in fact it’s not WASP culture that you’re photographing.
Barney: Not at all.
Laub: I was shocked to find out that you are Jewish.
Barney: Well half Jewish, and not brought up with the Jewish religion.
Laub: Why do people say it’s WASP culture?
Barney: People put labels on people without ever questioning. In the beginning critics would write about the Richie Rich part of my pictures. It took a long time for them to get over that and get used to the backgrounds, the textures, the interiors and then the narrative going on with the people in the photographs. Those are the things that really interested me. But I think [critics] were blinded by this world they hadn’t seen before. Most artists or books or movies get put into little tiny categories.
Laub: That’s what I loved about your most recent book, The Players. There’s no distinction between commissioned fashioned work, editorial, advertising and your personal work. I loved that it was seamless.
Barney: The design of that book was brilliant by Chip Kidd. The amusing part is that I handed him the pictures without telling him what they were because I wanted him to design it visually. I wanted to see a relationship from one page to the other. The whole point was to see the crossover between the different projects.
Laub: Are you continuing to photograph your family?
Barney: Nope. I stopped that in 1996, ’97 because it just doesn’t interest me anymore. I also think it’s because we are getting old and ugly and fat.
For six years now I’ve been photographing the small towns around where I live in Rhode Island. I am going around as a street photographer except in a car with my assistant, with my 4 x 5. The reason it’s taking so long is because after all these years it is very hard for me to be turned on visually. I am so particular.
Laub: What are you photographing?
Barney: I was reflecting on the town where we grocery shop and go to the dry cleaners, an Italian-based town which is where my former mother-in-law was born. It connects to everything that I am interested in: The tradition, the ritual. I started photographing stonecutters, welders. Then I branched out into parades, then agricultural fairs that I fell in love with, then the ballet class. Last year I discovered Civil War reenactments and Renaissance Fairs, which is the strangest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. But it was so up my alley because it was theater and tradition and history.
This summer I feel like it’s my last, which makes me sad.
Laub: Why is it your last?
Barney: Because I think it’s bad to drag a project out. Any photographer knows the biggest downer of all is going out there and finding nothing. It’s like going fishing and not catching a fish.
Except when I’m out there and I’m in a good situation, there are smells and sounds and a foreignness to it that I just love. I’m leaving my world and going into a place that’s very foreign.
Laub: You’re pushing yourself constantly to evolve and not be stuck into what people would expect.
Barney: Well, gosh, it’s boring to repeat yourself. I get hired editorially to do what I do. I have to stop myself and only accept what’s interesting to me. A politician in a suit in an office would be my kind of death.
Laub: Have you ever taken an assignment that in your gut you felt, “I shouldn’t be taking this”? What was the result?
Barney: Really boring. Anybody blind-folded could take the picture. Famous people are very difficult because they are sick and tired of having their picture taken. They have a set look that they give you.
Laub: So who are photographers you think are fabulous right now?
Barney: I think Thomas Demand is one of the more interesting photographers out there. I think Thomas Ruff is brilliant. I think that Katy Grannan interests me the most of that generation. Rineke Dijkstra is very important to me. But I also look at art probably once a week.
Laub: Thank you so much.
Barney: And keep your good work up.
Tina Barney: The Beginning, and Overcoming Obstacles (Audio)