Tina Barney: Master Of Documentary Photography

Tina Barney is one of the most acclaimed fine-art photographers in the U.S. She became well known photographing her real family in Rhode Island, and making large color prints from these interactions. While still in the midst of a thriving career, she recently had an exhibition of her current and past works called “Four Decades” at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York.

When did you first think about becoming an artist?

Tina Barney: I got married when I was 20, and I had my first child when I was 21. I had my second child at 23. At that point, I had started collecting contemporary art and was a photography collector. That was in the early ’70s, which, at that time, we decided to leave New York City and moved to a ski resort called Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a very sophisticated school. A lot of photographers whose photographs I collected came there to teach; it was like jumping into an MFA program right from the start. That’s where I learned all my photography.

You were at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts about 1975?

Barney: I lived there for 10 years, and that’s what I did for those years besides bringing up my children. I didn’t start by making photographs, but more learning how to print them, and learning the history. I had spectacular teachers. I started photographing back in Rhode Island, where I lived from the time I got married at 20 till today. I started photographing at Sun Valley and then in the East Coast because I began to realize it was such a two shift between the East Coast and the West Coast.

And you studied with Frederick Sommer, Roger Mertin, Joyce Neimanas, Nathan Lyons, Robert Cummings and John Pfahl?

Barney: Yes, all the people that you’ve listed, I studied with in Sun Valley.

And they were private workshops?

Barney: They were private workshops. There was an art school called the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Humanities, and that’s where they were. It was a small school started by the wife of the person who owns Sun Valley. She was interested in art, so she started the school. It still exists, but it doesn’t have workshops, unfortunately, anymore.

So the impact was big.

Barney: Huge. You also have to realize that I had already started to be very interested in photography before I got there. Before I got to Sun Valley, I started collecting. I never made any pictures until I got to Sun Valley. In those 10 years, I learned a great deal, not only about photography, but also about art and perceptions, about many different things.

At that time, photography wasn’t as respected as an art form.

The Limo, 2006, chromogenic color print

Barney: It wasn’t, but I was on the West Coast, which is very different from the East Coast. On the West Coast, people were so enamored with athleticism and that school of photography. So there was a huge following from the West Coast, and it was the very beginning of everything in the history of fine-art photography. I think that the average person wasn’t aware of fine-art photography as such, even our
lecturers weren’t aware of fine-art photography in the ’70s.

Was photographing the family as fine art unique at the time?

Barney: I didn’t know there were people doing it. There were very few. The whole thing about directing was unique. The first person I realized was directing pictures of family at the same time with me was a woman called
Mary Frey. And then when you go back and look, and you see people like Larry Sultan’s work, it’s so close to mine.

You were shooting 8×10 or 4×5?

Barney: I’ve used 4×5 most at the time, since 1982. I’ve made about 20,000 4x5s. I had to count them recently. Of the 8x10s, I probably made 3,000.

Did you get to the point where you found the extra value of using the 8×10 wasn’t worth it?

Barney: The most important thing of all is what you’re seeing through the ground glass, and there’s more information and detail with the 8×10. I think there’s more of a formal look to them. But I’m doing less large format in comparison to last year. Yet, believe me, I can use a 4×5 like a point-and-shoot. That’s one of the things that people cannot believe. The reason I was able to get what I got is because I use that camera almost like I have a motordrive on it. A lot of the time, I won’t even focus as I go under it. I can focus so quickly.

How many types of films do you take on a typical shoot, and is it very expensive?

Barney: It started way, way back in the ’80s. I started using more films than most people could count. Expensive? I wasn’t thinking about that. I never would take more than 30 shots on a shoot. When you’re doing a shoot, you need an hour to set up the lights.

When did you start learning digital?

Barney: I started two years ago.

You’re happy with the resolving power?

Barney: Yeah, but, you know what I’m finding? I’m blowing these up to 40×50, and I’m using the camera on a tripod, and I’m using studio lighting, and the resolution is so spectacular, I can’t believe it. I never thought it could be possible, and I’m really excited.

So, with digital, you’re not seeing a huge difference with film?

Barney: Oh, no, there’s a difference. I verbally say it because it’s technically complicated to describe it. I feel as if the part that I’m interested in the most is the word “translation.” The textures are translated differently. I can’t think of any other word.

Do you still see the resolving power and the superiority of 4×5?

Barney: There’s obviously no grain in a 4×5, right? And, yet, if you do everything correctly, there’s no grain when you go close up to a picture of a digital. But you know what the difference is? It’s a different texture. It’s as if you took silk and put it next to—I shouldn’t say next to velvet, because then it will sound like one is better than the other—it’s really like you’re talking about two different textures. Use that word, texture.

And what’s superior?

Barney: Neither, they’re different. That’s the part that’s hard for me, because I was so worried that 4×5 would remain superior, and now I realize that it’s just different.

The Boys, 1990, chromogenic color print

You take a long time generally with each of your series.

Barney: I don’t flip around from project to project. If you look at my projects, the first book that I did was 30 years. The second was The Europeans book, and it took eight years. The third book, I called Players, and it was also many years. Then I did a project called Small Towns, and that was seven years. I don’t flip around. When I choose a subject, I stay with it for years because I just don’t think I’m ever done.

It’s hard for you to say, I’m done?

Barney: Yes, you know, after seven years—it’s a long time. I finally say I’m done. I can’t find anything more. Sometimes it takes me a long time.

You were with the Janet Borden Gallery for a very long time.

Barney: Thirty years. I collected from her because she worked in St. Peter’s gallery in the ’70s. She was there, and she sold me some of the first pictures I collected. Then I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, and started making pictures. She didn’t know I was a photographer until she went to the Museum of Modern Art and saw my picture in the show “Big Pictures by Contemporary Photographers.” We were together for 30 years—started working together from 1983-84. She started showing my work out of her apartment, and then we had a little show at a restaurant, and then another show in another gallery that she shared with someone else, and another gallery, all the while she was still my dealer. So it was very slow stepping-stones until she opened up her own gallery. I can’t remember the year, which I should remember.

You came up together.

Barney: She developed my work. She put it out there and she really created what I became. She was very, very important to me.

How important are galleries, and what advice would you give to other fine-art photographers in that respect?

Barney: Well, I think what’s important is that it’s very hard to remove yourself from your own work. So, let’s say you have your own studio, which a lot of people do, and you have your friends come over to have a look at your work. It’s not the same because they’re probably going to be complimentary to you. The gallery puts you in a public place, which can be very scary, but very exciting at the same time. So you’re putting yourself up for criticism and compliments at the same time. If you have confidence, I think you learn more from criticism than you do from compliments. The gallery owner knows more people than you know, and it takes a lot of work off of your back.

Many wonder if fine-art photography can be lucrative.

Barney: I think if I told people how bad it was, they never would believe me. I don’t think they would. You think that if you have a great résumé and you’ve been collected from museums, it’s sort of whirling in financial results. It costs a lot to make the work. I think doing commercial work is where the money is. I certainly don’t think fine art is the way to make money. Don’t quit your day job. If you’re thinking about making money as an artist, you shouldn’t be an artist.

In your family photography, do you tell them what to do, or are you a fly on the wall, taking pictures?

Beverly, Jill and Polly, 1982, chromogenic color print

Barney: No, believe me, I’m not a fly on the wall. I started directing very slowly, and the photos are taken in combination of directing, directing the “come over here,” “walk over there,” and what happens while you’re doing that—while they’re talking with each other. So there’s this fine line—you see that in film today, too, especially the movie Boyhood. There’s a fine line of ad-lib, impromptu and directing, all in one.

And you’re shooting with 4×5?

Barney: No, Theater of Manners has a lot of 8×10 pictures in it.

Your photograph “The Limo” is considered an iconic shot.

Barney: That’s a fashion shoot. That’s from the magazine called Arena Homme. They got this model, this blond guy in there, they bleached his hair to make him look like Halston, who was the top designer in the ’70s. We went to different places that Halston hung out in the evening and it came from that story. It was a stretch limo, and I got in, in front of those guys, and my assistant had a flash, and got into the driver seat and poked the light through the opening so we had enough light.

It wasn’t a hard setup?

Barney: No, and it was shot on 4×5.

How satisfying has photography been as a career, and is there something else you would like to do?

Barney: Well, I shouldn’t admit it, but in my next life, I would love to be a painter. No, actually, maybe a watercolorist.

Do you paint?

Barney: I’m a Sunday painter, as they call it. But, believe me, a great watercolor reaches me. But I love photography. I love the medium.

See more of Tina Barney’s photography at tinabarney.com. Ken Weingart is an award-winning photographer based in Los Angeles and New York. This article originally ran in a longer form on his blog. Find the full interview and many other interviews with legendary photographers at kenweingart.com/blog, and find his work at kenweingart.com and on Instagram @kenweingart.

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