Leaving New York City so your kids can have more green space doesn’t sound like a promising start to an artistic career, but Tina Barney isn’t typical. In 1973, she and her family left their affluent, high society lives on the East Coast and packed up for Idaho, where she began studying photography under masters like Frederick Sommer, Roger Mertin, and Joyce Niemanas at the Sun Valley Center for Arts and Humanities.
A decade later when they returned, Barney could see how unusual her family life really was. With the photographic skills she’d gained out west, she began documenting her relatives, their impressive estate, and the seemingly sunny lives they lived within it. Those images, which culminated in her landmark book Theater of Manners (1997), have long been read as exposés on WASP life, though Barney staunchly rejects that view.
“What was primary to me was relationships between people and how people react to each other,” she told Hyperallergic. “Deep down, what I really was interested in was sociology. How people act. How people move. What gestures they use to communicate with each other within an interior.”
Many of those iconic photographs are on view in Four Decades, a survey of her work at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in Chelsea. The show also includes images from The Europeans, a photobook depicting the Old World elite; Players, a compilation of her editorial projects, and Small Town, a look at regional America life. We spoke with Barney recently about her photographic evolution, what she wishes critics would talk more about, and how the Internet has impacted the way we look at images.
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Laura C. Mallonee: How did you begin taking the pictures that would become Theater of Manners?
Tina Barney: It started out, really, at 28 years old, feeling that this life that I came from and lived in was going to become extinct. My father died when I was 14 years old, and that had a lot to do with it. There was the fear of, “Can I keep this life I came from up and the incredible amount of work that it takes to have a house that has lovely things in it?” I didn’t want things to end. I was just a very serious person. I realized what it takes to continue. Plus having my father die meant there was no one keeping it up for us. We were on our own. It’s a great deal of work to have beautiful things. Everybody knows that, right? I love living where I love.
LCM: The photos feature your brother, sister, sons, and other relatives and friends. They look like snapshots or documentary photographs, but but they’re actually elaborately staged.
TB: I only bothered these people once a year for one hour, because I always felt like I was intruding. This was very thought out — where I’m going to do it, what lighting. It went from putting the camera in the back of my station wagon to slowly putting the light on top of the camera and then walking out the door with seven bags of very complicated lighting equipment and an assistant, which started with a 14-year-old boy and graduated into more sophisticated lighting assistance. Each year I tried to get closer up, I tried to make the pictures personal. The earlier the photos are, the more backed up I am, because I wanted to show the setting.
LCM: Why was the setting so important?
TB: I knew that the interiors were very unique. My mother was a very elegant social figure and then she became an interior decorator, and a very good one, so the interiors became very important to me. I wanted to say, “Look at this, isn’t this spectacular? Share this with me. Isn’t this fabric beautiful? Isn’t this woman beautiful?”
LCM: You worked on that series for three decades. What was it like to work on a single project for so long?
TB: Well, it’s like asking someone, “What is it like to have lived 28 years?” You don’t think about it. Before you know it you’re 28, and that’s what it was like. I was very driven, I was actually panicked, usually. It wasn’t because I thought I had to do this, it was just a drive. If you’re passionate about something you have to do it. It was not fun. You know how people go out and run? I mean, are they going out to have fun? It was like that. You have to do it.
LCM: When the work first came out, people saw it — and still see it — as revealing what WASP society is like, which was very different from what you intended it to be. How did you take that critical response?
TB: It was like someone personally insulting me, and I don’t know how I could have been so naive as to not realize that was going to happen. I felt that they were condemning the people in the pictures. I had to console myself by thinking, “At least they’re looking at them.” It’s now just sort of ho-hum to me.
LCM: What do you wish critics had paid attention to more?
TB: I really wanted the critics — which they rarely do this — to talk about the picture itself. How it’s put together. The complicated things that I’m so interested in. Rarely is that talked about. It’s always about the subject matter, which, to me, is sort of at the bottom of the list. So few people really know how to look at a photograph. If you look at a Lee Frielander — so few people know how to look at a Lee Frielander. It’s very, very complicated, hard work to look at a photograph and really understand it.
LCM: Why do you think that is?
TB: One of the reasons being is that most people can take a picture. And now more than ever, they don’t understand the complexity of visual perception and the whole thing about what a photograph intellectually really is. It takes lots of reading about it. You’re not going to go up and look at a photograph and immediately get the content out of the blue. It takes time to understand. It’s very much to me like dissection or like surgery — opening up the body and going through the layers and saying, “Ok, this is this, and this is this…” That’s one thing I think most people aren’t seeing yet. And maybe I’m being arrogant in thinking they’re not seeing it. Now on the internet it’s even worse.
LCM: How so?
TB: Putting one of my five foot pictures that are made with a view camera on the screen of your little iPhone — please tell me there is no way you can actually see the content of my pictures that way. One of my fears is that your generation, and definitely the next, are going to be looking at photographs on paper less and less. That’s taking away such a big part of it. To see the real object — and it is an object — is very important. Seeing the quality and the texture and what’s in focus and what’s out of focus. The object that has all these layers, these tiny details. You can’t back up and get away from it as you would in a gallery when you’re looking at a five or 10 foot photograph. But there is the sense that so many more people will see that image through the internet that would not have seen it otherwise— that’s the good part.
LCM: It’s not just the way images are predominantly viewed that’s changed, but often also the way they’re taken. How have you fared in the digital upheaval?
TB: I’ve been using a digital camera and it’s been agony for me, because I’m un-technical, but there’s enough there that interests me in what that machine is doing that’s different than the other machine of the view camera which I was using for all those years.
You know what it’s really like? The difference between watercolor, gouache, and oil. There are some things that are untranslatable. I’m at the point right now where if the pictures I’m taking with a digital camera aren’t up to my standards, that doesn’t bother me anymore, luckily. I’ve done enough.
LCM: After Theater of Manners you stopped photographing family. Instead, you went to Europe as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome, where you began photographing the Old World elite. How did you gain access to these people?
TB: When I was a child my family went to Europe a lot. My father knew a lot of Europeans, and I went to school in Switzerland when I was 14 years old. I wasn’t just an American who decided to go to Europe. There were all kinds of connections through the whole thing. Old friends. New friends. I had one Italian friend in Rome and she helped me find the people that are in the pictures from Italy. While I was there I would hear people say, “Oh I have a cousin who’s married to an Austrian.” And that’s how it would happen. People started wanting to help. I took eight years to do that. It went by lickety-split.
LCM: How was photographing Europe’s upper classes different from photographing your family?
TB: When I got to Europe, the houses were so grand and so over-the-top overwhelming, and the people were very much more formidable. And I realized there was no way I would go into these castles with 15-foot ceilings and butlers standing behind chairs over lunch and start telling them what to do. It was more interesting for me to let them be themselves as I went on, and therefore the pictures became much more formal. I walked in, took the picture, walked out the door, and that was it. It was a one-shot thing. They didn’t care who I was. They didn’t have any idea about my work in the United States. It had only to do with the fact that they knew or trusted the person who introduced me. To have a person come in and do their portrait is really not that weird — it’s very much a part of their lives to have their portrait made. And they really are like portraits in the formal sense. People love them because they are like watching Downton Abbey. These European pictures are almost like paintings, especially if you see them in real life. On the real print you can see the velvets, you can see the linens, the brocades, the sculptures. In a way those pictures aren’t complicated at all, and they will never be as personal.
LCM: For your next project, Small Towns, you didn’t even have a mediator — you were photographing complete strangers with whom you had no connection. Were there any challenges there?
TB: It’s become much harder to photograph strangers because of the internet. When you look at me, you will think I look like a little grandmother. I’ve got my khakis and sneakers and baseball hat. But people are so worried about the internet that what you look like now doesn’t matter anymore. I was photographing in small towns, and in some cases the people who lived in those small New England towns might have never left it. But they knew that I could take a picture and it would be out of my control. It’s literally out of my control. And I don’t like to televise that or talk about it, because every time I do it’s ruining my chance of taking a picture of a stranger — which of course is now much more interesting to me than anything.
LCM: People still see your work as an exploration of different social worlds, but what’s driven you has been a basic interest in the human being.
TB: It fascinates me so much, and it really comes before anything else. When you’ve been photographing as long as I have, it gets harder and harder to get turned on. Anybody knows that no matter what you do. One thing I know that still interests me is the human being itself, the face, what goes on inside the face, usually in the context of something else. For me to have a person in front of a white wall or a seamless piece of colored wall is pretty hard, almost impossible, for me to do. There has to be something there to make some kind of conversation, so there is some kind of formalism that still interests me definitely, but it’s the human being and what happens with it when you take a picture. Just looking at it isn’t that interesting. I mean, it is, but to make a picture of that and see what happens is a whole other thing. I’m still in love with the idea of the machine and how the machine translates.
Tina Barney: Four Decades continues at Paul Kasmin Gallery (293 10th Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 20.
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