Tina Barney

Photographer

Interview: by Billy Miller

For nearly four decades Tina Barney’s work has examined the privileged class from the inside out. Born into a wealthy East Coast family, her career took off in the ’70s when she began producing large-scale photographs of her friends and family, surveying the social elite of New York and New England. As an insider to the exclusive class she observes, no moments—no matter how intimate—seem off limits. From Christmas dinners to quiet afternoons, complex dramas are captured with the candidness of a snapshot, but presented within a formally structured photograph that demonstrates her appreciation for classic paintings. 

Though arguably best known for her ongoing documentation of affluent Northeastern families, Tina’s artistic pursuits have branched out to explore the aristocrats of Europe and the “new money” of China—or, as many have pointed out, “the people of means who earlier would have commissioned painted portraits of themselves.” 

Dividing time between her Manhattan apartment and her country home in Rhode Island, Tina’s work has been exhibited and collected by the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney Museum of American Art and a number of major cultural institutions around the world. Her life was the subject of a documentary that aired on the Sundance Channel and her work has been published in a number of monographs, the most recent of which, “Players,” presents a mix of commercial fashion assignments, editorials, personal work and a poetic forward by Michael Stipe. 

Billy Miller: Your photographs have a formal aspect in subject matter and composition. What inspires this? 

Tina Barney: I’m always looking to capture very particular mannerisms in people. It could be the way a person holds a cigarette or the way they hold themselves in social situations that sparks my initial interest. When I was starting out I studied a lot of 17th century Dutch paintings and Italian Renaissance paintings because I was learning how to structure my photos in an interesting way. Art history has always been an interest of mine, and I mention that quite a bit when I’m speaking about my work. 

BM: I recently had a conversation with a friend who teaches, and it seems the photographic language that’s been taught through things like art history is disappearing. The fundamentals are being thrown out and students are being told that whatever they want to do is OK

TB: A cultured background is one of the things that’s lacking most in an art education, and I’m astounded by how little of it is being taught. I don’t know how anyone could have a discussion, be it philosophical or theoretical, if they don’t have a background and knowledge of the past. Sometimes you’ll find a token idiot savant, but that’s not always the case. 

BM: You’ve photographed your friends and family for years, but what do you look for in a subject who isn’t personally connected to you? 

TB: My assistant always asks me that, and I never know how to answer. I just know when it’s right. I guess it’s similar to picking out a person in a bar you think is cute. But that has to do with physical appearance and sex, and my choice has to do more with memory and the thought of having seen something before. My work certainly deals with places and environments, but it’s more about people than anything else. It’s about families, tradition, ritual and the reasons why people go back and do the same things over and over again. 

BM: Your subjects often depict the Northeast’s upper class. Is class something you think of consciously or is that something you think people read into when they view your images? 

TB: I think everybody brings their own lives to the viewing process, and I do notice how different viewers see the pictures in different ways. It’s obvious that the people I photograph are of a different class than most viewers are used to seeing, so I’m sure that people do read into it that way, but class really isn’t the kind of thing that interests me and it’s certainly not at the top of my list of things I think about. More often than not, I’m pleased with the fact that people see the relationship between the subjects and the highly intimate interactions going on within the photograph. I also hope they enjoy the small details and different objects that exist within the structure, which might be different from things they’ve seen in their own lives. I’m most interested in the formalities of putting a picture together, and in doing so I might show situations I have not intended.
 

BM: The structures you create seem to invite the viewer into the drama of a scene. Are you directing your subjects to manipulate what you see? 

TB: Sometimes I direct and sometimes I don’t. In the ’80s I was trying to show that families weren’t close enough, and through directing the people in the pictures I was able to bring them closer together, but I don’t plan anything ahead of time. 
I only know the minute I walk into a room what I want to do, so I have to figure things out in a very short period of time. I’m drawn to things like fashion, architecture and design, so it might be the pattern on a dress or the texture of the wallpaper that initially catches my eye. When the images are viewed I want the viewer to feel as though they’re entering the room, so when I structure the photo, I’ll try to zero in on these details. I like to think that my photographs are a record of the times and I hope they remain interesting to viewers for a long time to come. 

Tina Barney's NYC


photo: Michael Halsband
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