Art In Conversation
with Phong Bui
New YorkPaul Kasmin
January 17 – March 3, 2018
Although I’ve followed Tina Barney ever since I first saw an exhibition of her work in New York in 1990, and having met in passing at several social gatherings in Chelsea and elsewhere, it wasn’t until recently Tina paid a visit to the Rail HQ for lunch and to meet our staff that our acquaintances turned the page. Due to the recent, handsome and comprehensive monograph Tina Barney (Rizzoli, 2017), with an introduction by the artist herself and an afterword by Peter Galassi, along with Tina’s current exhibit Landscapes, which includes a group of new and never-before-seen works at Paul Kasmin Gallery (Jan. 17-March 3, 2018), and a small volume of her works on paper (self-published, 2016)—I had not been aware of her practice of making drawings and watercolor paintings related to her photography, which she has been doing since the early 1990s—I visited Tina’s apartment in Gramercy Park for a lengthy conversation about life and work, and everything in between.
Phong Bui (Rail): You were exposed to contemporary photography in your early 20s as a volunteer on the Junior Council at the MoMA…
Barney: Which is now called Junior Associates. I knew nothing about photography whatsoever. I had never heard of Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, among others, but that was where and how I became interested in learning about photography. Then by the early ‘70s, I went regularly to the three existing photography galleries at the time, Light Gallery, Witkin Gallery, and Robert Freidus Gallery. Charles Traub, Victor Schrager, Marvin Heiferman, Janet Borden were all working in those galleries.
Rail: That was how you first met Janet! [Barney’s gallerist from 1983 – 2014]
Barney: Yes, while she was working for Robert Freidus.
Rail: And you began collecting photographs on a very small scale.
Barney: Yes, I bought, for example, Imogen Cunningham’s Triangles (1928), Edward Weston’s Cabbage Leaf (1931), Robert Frank’s Butte, Montana (1955), also works by other greats like Lee Friedlander, Garry Winogrand, Walker Evans, etc. This was all when photographs cost $200.
Rail: That was roughly around 1971, ’72.
Barney: Right, because I got married and moved with our two young sons, Tim and Phil, to Sun Valley in 1973, and I never thought of myself as a photographer—except for having taken family snapshots on occasions and putting them in albums. That was the extent of it.
Rail: Was there any other formal education leading to your discovery of photography, I mean before taking workshops with Frederick Sommer, Duane Michals, Nathan Lyons, among others at Sun Valley Center for the Arts from 1976 to ’83?
Barney: I went to Briarcliff Junior College for three months but then dropped out. At 19 I lived in Florence, Italy, to study the Italian Renaissance. Next I audited art history classes with Meyer Schapiro at Columbia University, Barbara Rose at the New School of Social Research, which were all interesting and useful. My brother Philip, who began to collect in his early twenties, was instrumental in suggesting shows at galleries like Sidney Janis and André Emmerich, for example. My first photography teacher in Sun Valley was Peter de Lory. I started learning how to print in black and white, and began to take pictures of my family and friends, especially during the summers in Rhode Island, with a Pentax, which is more or less the same subject matter that I’m still interested in today: family tradition, ritual—not so much portraiture—because I wanted the pictures to be about affectionate gestures of the human body, what people wore, how they interact with each other in their domestic surroundings, and so on. Mark Klett became the head of the photo department at the Sun Valley Center for Arts and Humanities. He taught me how to print in color. And he also used a 4×5, so I learned about the importance of using a view camera in the early ‘80s.
Rail: Such pictures, including Sunday New York Times (1982), and Beverly, Jill, and Polly (1982) are good examples of what you were trying to attain at the time.
Barney: Exactly. Also, a friend encouraged me to enter a juried exhibition at the Boise Art Museum (1982), and Patterson Sims was the judge. He gave me an award for Sunday New York Times and Beverly, Jill and Polly, which was a real encouragement.
Rail: Were you aware of the landmark show Mirrors and Windows: American Photography Since 1960, curated by John Szarkowski in 1978?
Barney: Yes, it was an important show even though my family and I were in Sun Valley. I remember all the photographer friends I knew still talking about the show, even years later. I still have the catalogue.
Rail: It was a survey of recent photography, at least to that point in time of 17 years, for which Szarkowski argued the medium no longer had the need to thrive on the old friction between “straight” or direct photography and “synthetic” or manipulated photography. Instead, he proposed two new formal ploys: one is the “mirror” being a romantic expression of the photographer’s sensibility as it is free to project itself onto the objects and sights of the world; the other is the “window” as a framing device through which the exterior world is explored in its full magnitude. To demonstrate these differences, he painted various shades of grey walls for the works that refer to the subjective idea of the “mirror,” which includes Bruce Davidson, Danny Lyons, Ernst Hass for example; and the equivalent variant of white walls for the objective “window” that features works by Diane Arbus, Gary Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, William Eggleston, Ed Ruscha, just to name a few.
Barney: What’s interesting about what happened in the ‘70s is so pivotal, so monumental, and you have to go back and wonder, why did this all happen? Some people thought that it had to do with all of a sudden showing work in galleries and that that changed the way people looked at photographs, as opposed to looking at them in a book. Others felt the ‘70s was a period of freedom and thinking a great deal about your own narrative, the notion of, why did Larry Sultan, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Sally Mann, myself, and others start photographing our families? And you just don’t really know because there’s so many different facts that come into why a movement happens. And you as a student, of course, start following your idols. Which I don’t think I really did. I somehow was on my own. I got through the clichés pretty quickly, partly because as soon as I moved out west I realized that my life was very different.
Rail: It’s interesting how the theme of nature or landscape has been depicted or represented, first as frescoes on the walls of the cramped, small Roman apartments as early as the first century B.C. to provide a sense of release from the stress of daily life’s annoyance. The same can be said of the impressionists who went to the countryside to make landscape paintings. The point is nature has always been depicted by those from the cities, almost rarely by those who are in the countryside. Perhaps it’s the opposite in your case: it took you being from home, when you were in Sun Valley, to long for the warmth of people and the social scenes of your East Coast life.
Barney: I never thought of it in that perspective. I was homesick for sure.
Rail: Well the word “homesick” was initially a Swiss dialect, which expressed the deep longing for the mountains.
Barney: I certainly know if I hadn’t left home, I would have never understood it in the way that I did. Even though I remained in my own country, home still seemed so far away to me; I might as well have been in another country.
Rail: Was there one first picture that revealed such sentiment?
Barney: There’s one picture in the book called The Flag (1977), in which three children are pulling down the American flag, and they’re dressed in these very East Coast clothes that are very telling of their preppy background. I thought it was a strange ritual of pulling down the flag every evening. That’s when I was beginning to feel as if I was on to something, and it was only because I brought those pictures back to Sun Valley, and people that did the workshops thought these were different than everything I did up until then. I was very insecure that people were interested in the fact that they were about the upper class and always was very protective of that environment because they were much more than that to me. They were much more about tradition and ritual, and because of the specific place that I live in, the ability to be able to keep the house so that you could see the history of an entire family existence. That history was precious to my sense of belonging.
Rail: So much was written about your upper class, Anglo-American life, for example, A.M. Homes referred to you as an anthropologist of photography of this specific milieu.
Barney: That’s a compliment to me. I love watching Margaret Mead films, reading Claude Lévi Strauss—the idea of following a group of people for thirty, forty years fascinates me.
Rail: Like Michael Apted’s Up series!
Barney: Yes, an absolutely wonderful series.
Rail: One of my favorite quotes by Joseph Butler—the 18th century British theologian/philosopher who hated John Locke’s theory of personal identity—is, “Everything is what it is and not another thing.” The world will collapse if one feels of where he or she belongs to, be it a nation, a race, a class, or even a cult. It’s something we can’t easily get away from.
Barney: That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always been grouped together with Nan Goldin, Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Larry Sultan. Curators have put us in shows together for all these years, and I don’t know what they’ve taken from it except that we stayed at home, we arranged imagery, some of us used lighting, we’re all American, the prints were big, and most of them color. So there were all those things in common. But I think whoever wrote about all those shows, whoever curated all those shows could have done more. I think Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort, curated by Peter Galassi at the Museum of Modern Art, is one of the most interesting examples, and that’s because of his intelligence and understanding.
Rail: That was in 1991. An amazing show and an amazing text, and catalogue. The title says it all about suburban life.
Barney: It sure was—how photography has changed so much now, but the subject remains the same, except for new interpretations.
Rail: In your case, as Peter wrote in his afterword, you contributed to important collective trends that shifted the commitment to make larger prints with larger cameras. For the longest time, a handheld camera was the preferred tool because of its maximum ability and speed, also adding color to the prints, and of course the emphasis on personal milieu and domestic life as a subject matter.
Barney: Well, the fact that we used a view camera to be able to see all the details, is what was such a shock. That was revolutionary. I also think that—when you look at any art movements throughout the history of different cultures in any kind of medium, people were always doing similar things at the same time.
Rail: True, like Nan Goldin is working on one thing; Cindy Sherman is working on another thing, yet, they share the similar “pleasures” and “terrors” of domestic comfort. I like what you had said of Cindy being a great actress.
Barney: She is. Few have given her the credit.
Rail: Though whereas in Cindy’s pictures, the reference to film noir of the ‘50s and ‘60s was pretty evident, not to mention the dramatic play of light and shadow that amplified the sense of suspense and mystery, your work seems to explore the history of painting, as you’ve frequently talked about, especially with 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch painting.
Barney: First of all, my family is full of art collectors. I was surrounded by art my whole life. My mother was a model, then became an interior decorator, which added the elements of fashion and design to my sensibility. I should mention my maternal grandfather was an amateur photographer who took pictures of our family at all family related events: birthdays, holidays, weekend visits, etc. He also did all the printing in his own dark room.
Rail: Perhaps your attraction to a similar subject matter may have been initiated on some subconscious level from your grandfather?
Barney: I’m sure. I also think having lived in Florence, Italy (it was very typical, in the ‘60s, for American girls to go and live with an Italian family to study), was exposed to the wealth of the Renaissance and Italian painting at the Uffizi, and other museums like Palazzo Pitti, and churches, including Santa Maria Novella, San Marco, etc. in Florence. The experience of seeing those great works of art becomes an integral part of your visual memory. Anyone who has seen me work knows that I work very fast, and I never know when an image from my memory is going to reappear and influence the results. As I’m taking a picture, I don’t say, “Oh, gee, that looks like a Paolo Uccello.”
Rail: Like how you once spoke of Uccello’s second panel of the famous diptych The Battle of San Romano (1432), how the broken lances on the ground along with the crossbows were carefully constructed to lead the viewer’s eyes to the background. Did you use a similar function for the ropes on the boats to the dock in the picture Boating Nantucket (1979)?
Barney: Yes, it only occurred to me afterward that I found these parallels or similarities. It’s just all there, as if you’re speaking a language that you know intimately. That’s what I compare it to—just like you’re speaking—you’re not aware of everything you say. Then, when I get the contacts back, that’s when I make these discoveries. Well that’s having it work as far as the composition. There’s that, but then you have to deal with the technical concerns. Is the lighting right? The last icing on the cake is, what is happening to the people?
Rail: The narrative itself.
Barney: The narrative, the communication. What are my prerequisites? What do I really want? How can I get all these elements in one picture, which can take years. Nine sheets of film every two years.
Rail: How many photographs would you normally take per summer, which is the time you prefer to take your pictures?
Barney: I tried since the early ‘80s to take 300 photographs a summer, which is hard to do. I used the 4×5 with a flash, as if it were a handheld 35mm camera. I started using eleven bags of lighting equipment by the early ‘90s. And the change was huge—I could get much better resolution. I could get into the back of the rooms better, but in other ways, it slowed me down. It takes an hour to set up, so then I had to really work at getting those candid moments right. It was much more difficult, so there were pluses and minuses.
Rail: How do you go about directing people?
Barney: It depends on the people, and on the situation. I used to just let things happen, asking people to hold still because I didn’t have lights. For example, in Sunday New York Times (1982), I’d yell out, “One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand,” etc. And so the father at the head of the table looks a bit stiff, but then those who didn’t listen to me yelling out—some were out of focus—they went on with their business as usual. So that’s luck. And that’s also because there’s so many people in that picture that you sometimes get some impromptu things happening. As I started being interested in using fewer people in the picture, because I knew that I had done the choreographed tableau to death, I began eliminating people in the late ‘90s, as you can see in the book. It became more like portraiture, and however difficult and challenging, it still keeps me interested today—one person confronting the camera and what to do with him or her. You asked me about directing. It’s such a fine line that most of the time it has to do with the structure of the picture. I can’t possibly say I want you to feel this way, I want you to feel that way. So while you’re saying, “please move over there,” or “hold this or that pose,” you then might get something that could be revealing, and that’s just chance. I don’t direct like a movie director, saying, “I want you to think about when your mother died so you can look sad.” It doesn’t happen like that.
Rail: I know that you’re very resistant in revealing why you do what you do, choosing a certain subject matter rather than another. You wanted to protect a sense of mystery, and the autonomy of the action.
Barney: That’s the part that’s interesting—it’s the phenomenon. Some have asked, “How did you know I was having this fight with my husband?” Well, I didn’t. [Laughs.] Sometimes that’s the viewers providing their own interpretation. But then you get glances or expressions that transcend everything that is universal. This is when it becomes an interesting portrait, which is a give and take between both the photographer and the subject.
Rail: What about titles, which in some cases, they were simply entitled after the protagonist’s real names like Mark, Amy, and Tara (1983), Beverly, Jill, and Polly (1982), or Marina and Peter (1997), for example, whereas in others they were titled after either the objects or the ambience of the space like The Orchids (2003), The Orange Room (1996), The Hands (2002)? How do you mediate between the two tendencies to give titles to different pictures?
Barney: I hate giving titles to each photograph, so I’ve never really thought about it too hard. I always want it to be something very general, so that I don’t narrow the interpretation. And it usually happens after the picture is made. I think this happens to most other artists as well. First of all, to get from the point of taking the pictures to choosing the one I’m going to make five feet, is a very long amount of time. So the last thing I do is choose the title, because it doesn’t interest me. But then, through time, they have a certain style to them. I use titles, for example, like The Young Lady and The Little Sister, because they seemed more appropriate for these formal pictures. But yes, in other cases where the ambience of the space is the focal point, for example, a young man standing in front of a yellow wall with an empty frame behind him, The Yellow Wall becomes the title.
Rail: That makes sense. Who among the photographers, when you began showing your work in the mid ‘80s, whose works you share some pictorial affinities or you simply admire?
Barney: William Eggleston. Of course, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander were really important to me, because what they each did was so new and different: the inclusion of everything in the frame; the looseness. Lee Friedlander, like Stephen Shore, is someone I will never completely understand, and I don’t really want to. There’s a complexity there that is so interesting and magical. They have an understanding of the way the camera sees that I don’t think 99% of the people who look at them do. It’s very sophisticated, in the way that minimalism is to me, that I have no words to even explain, it’s so complex. And let’s say Lee, for instance, is dealing with shapes and forms, which become so much more interesting than the actual subject matter. The fact that they’re black and white allows you to focus on the graphics, rather than being distracted by the subject matter. I always tell students to turn the photograph upside down, so you get away from the subject matter and really see the forms. Those are the parts I might learn from looking at any minimalistic work.
Rail: What about artists who have emerged in the last one or two decades?
Barney: Neo Rausch interests me because of his imagination and how he composes his images to create such specific and strange narrative in each painting. And the colors are just as unique and spectacular. I also like Luc Tuymans for the total opposite reason: minimal use of image, and a simple, tonal yet equally strange palette. As for photographers, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth were very important to me. Ruff’s large faces were a huge influence. What he’s done as time’s gone by, what his fascination with the camera can do, and the different sort of photographic games he plays. Struth too, because of the family portraits he did at the beginning, but also the museum photographs.
Rail: Do you crop your images?
Barney: I don’t crop at all. Why would you drag around this huge 8×10 camera and then crop part of the image? The idea of cropping to me is sacrilegious. But now with digital photographs being a new language, in which all sorts of manipulations are welcomed and embraced, it’s all about, in the end, getting what you want that counts. For me, it has to do with time, how in that split second, I get the pleasure of intense focus on things that happen at the edge of the frame. In other words, up to this point I haven’t paid much attention to digital technologies, but seeing the Stephen Shore show at MoMA changed my mind. Those digital prints look so fantastic.
Rail: I noticed that in your current exhibition, Landscapes, at Paul Kasmin Gallery, there’s one new size, relatively small, 20×24 inches, compared to your two classics, 48×60 inches and 30×40 inches.
Barney: Exactly, and that’s a big change for me, because for many years I only did 48×60 inches and 30×40. I feel like we’ve seen the big color pictures long enough. I always wanted to make a smaller photograph, but I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. I’ve often walked into a group show and gravitated toward the smaller works of art, and I never really could understand why. I mean it has to be a strong work if it holds up in a big room. So this time I decided to make these 20×24 inch pictures, and I’m really glad I did. I think it makes you look at the larger ones differently, and then the smaller ones become almost like objects. So I really enjoyed having made and included them in the show.
Rail: Like Drive-In (2017), Bay Street (1988), and Tennis Court (1988)!
Rail: How do you mediate with scale, Tina?
Barney: Well, I wanted big pictures because I wanted the viewer to be able to see all these little objects, the beauty of the fabric, the texture of someone’s skin, the clothes they wore, etc., and of course the specific environment they inhabit. It’s like a writer who describes every inch of a room. I wanted to invite the viewer to come in. What I’ve experienced in photographing these landscapes was the sense of looking at this huge expanse in the distance, for the first time. It was a wonderful feeling in some sense, but in another sense I had no control of what was out there, which is new for me, but also what to do with it all. Where to stand, where to begin, of not having kind of structural devices to help me, no ceiling, no walls, no furniture, and that was just a very difficult and interesting sort of puzzle.
Rail: How to frame it . . .
Barney: How to frame it, what to do with the sky, how much space for the sky, or the ground, and then the color, so much grass, so many green trees—all of that drove me crazy. With these new landscape images, I learned that you have less control over what happens in the narrative. It is more about overall composition, which is an interesting shift.
Rail: They’re not your typical Tina Barney pictures for sure. Were they taken in different times?
Barney: Some were taken in the ‘80s, for example, 4th of July on Beach (1989), and some are from last summer, like Bike Parade (2017), which looks like a train set because it was taken from high above.
Rail: Next question is: how do you respond or react to the space between people when they pose for your pictures?
Barney: Amy, Phil, & Brian (1980) is a good example because it was the first time I directed someone in a picture. I used a Pentax 35mm, handheld camera. I wanted to show the space between the people and how I thought the family was too far apart, both emotionally and physically. The family didn’t show enough physical affection towards each other. So I had my son, Phil, stand on the diving board in the middle, with Amy on the left and Brian on the right. It’s like a triangle that ties the three of them together. Similar visual devices are used throughout my work. I made good use of the hammock netting through the children’s faces as another way to bring them together in Ada’s Hammock (1982). The formation of the girl’s legs in Diane, Mark, and Tim (1982) appear distorted but they lure you into the picture very effectively. I took this picture with a flash on the top of my 4×5, which was a huge deal. The composition of Graham Cracker Box (1983), on the other hand, was a nice accident. My friend had just gotten back from playing tennis, the kids were there, all the dishes were on the table. All I did was move the Graham Cracker box to the edge of the table because I wanted this feeling—beware, this seems perfect but things can fall apart.
Rail: The only stable form in the picture is the girl with the crossed arms on the right.
Barney: True. I asked her to sit there, while everyone else was immersed in their activities.
Rail: Of course, I notice there are repetitions, some characters who appear in several pictures.
Barney: You see them grow up. Like in Michael Apted’s Up Series, from 7 Up to 56 Up.
Rail: In regard to the title of your 1997 book Theater of Manners, I thought of (Johann Kaspar) Lavater, who proposed in his study of physiognomy that a person’s facial expression or type of posture corresponds with his or her inner psyche.
Barney: I do have a general interest in physiognomy, partly because I wonder if, let’s say of a father and a son, the son has the exact same physical expression on his face as his father does—is that genetic, or physical, or imitative? There’s no way to know for sure. I think it’s imitative, but why do people want to look or act like their father, their sister, their brother? That really fascinates me. As you can see in the pictures of the Europeans, they were so formal there was no way I could tell them what to do. I just realized that the way they held themselves and presented themselves was far more interesting to let them do what they wanted to do, no matter how stiff they were. The gestures and the way they held themselves might have been imitative of the portraits they were surrounded by in spectacular homes, and houses, or castles. I really like the little girl with her two hands around her waist while standing on the chair.
Rail: The title The Little Sister is perfect. She’s the one with the personality indeed.
Barney: I agree. And the objects that appear in that space were just right.
Rail: Last question: what’s the impulse that drove you to draw the figures? Were they drawn from life or photograph?
Barney: It began as filling time in between projects, in between shoots. I’d make sketches after my own pictures as ways to register the images differently than how they appear in the photographs. It’s as though I’m giving them different movements and atmosphere, which in turn I became more sensitive to the subtleties of their gestures, postures, their presence essentially.