Barney photographs the hoity toity, not the hoi polloi

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Photo by Joy Shan.

Many artists are reluctant to portray the American class system — but not Tina Barney.

Barney, a contemporary photographer who is well known for her large-scale portraits of the American upper crust, spoke yesterday evening at the School of Art’s Monday Night Lecture Series. Barney addressed an audience of about 70 as she presented a detailed chronology of her life and work, using samples from past and current photo projects to demonstrate changes in her techniques and preferences.

“There is a fiction that we are all of the same class, unlike in England or France,” Robert Storr, dean of the School of Art, said in his introduction. “[Tina Barney] opens up the dynamics between people in the extremely complex class society of this country — there is nothing inauthentic in showing people from the upper class world with candor.”

After beginning by discussing her childhood in New York and post-high school studies in Italy, Barney recalled her family’s move to a ski resort in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she picked up photography.

But Barney wasn’t interested in photographing the West. On summer trips to a small town in Rhode Island, where she still lives, she began thinking about trends among wealthy East Coast families, she said. For example, she attempted to document the tendency of well heeled East Coast families not to show affection or physical closeness through photos that positioned characters far apart each other in the foreground and background. For example, one such shot shows a pool with a boy on the diving board in the foreground and two other family members standing at the pool’s far corners.

“People would ask me if the photographs [of the people in this town] were stylized, though they weren’t,” Barney said. “Everyone had the same clothes, decorated their houses the same way, and had dresses that matched the wallpaper.”

Barney went on the explain her interest in the different narratives she could represent through photography, contrasting the rigid upbringing of children in New York City to the disappearance of all such formalities in the West.

This interest in the stories of her subjects drove Barney to work on each of her photo projects for long stretches of time, revisiting many families every few years.

“The more you photograph people, the more you see,” Barney said. “There are so many stories in one person — I keep going back because it takes that long before I understand someone.”

Barney discussed different series of family portraits she has made over the last thirty years — how aging and inclusion of different families members represent different dynamics in the relationships she was seeking to capture.

This theme of changes over time stretched into Barney’s comments on her own life. She spoke of both the frustrations and joys of the modern digital age, and expressed regret that the threat of the Internet has made random subjects less willing to be photographed.

“I’ve tried using digital cameras two or three times and I’ve hated it,” Barney said. “But I’m obviously going to have to switch because everything is pushing us analog people out of the way — it’s so much harder to even get film.”

Moreover, Barney’s connection to the past through her technology is reflected by her inspirations — 19th-century European portraiture techniques, the Italian Renaissance and Dutch interiors — a unique twist that several audience members found particularly compelling.

“Her opinions on space from [these inspirations] were something so new for the modern photograph,” Alison Hutchison ’15, a member of the audience, said.

Tina Barney’s work is featured in collections at, among others, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Photography and the Museum of Fine Arts.

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