Tina Barney photographs what she describes as a vanishing world and a vanishing way of life. The photographs are large scale color images of upper-class, Anglo-American life within the closed society of an enclave on the coast of Rhode Island. Her recurrent subjects are family and friends. Often described as some combination of Manet and Henry James, the photographs are neither. They are more like Walker Evans taken through the looking glass. Here the rags have given way to Brooks Brothers’s clothes and tattered wallpaper to French Impressionism in barbizon frames, but we still have the sense of intimacy and insight that a documentary photograph confers upon a family, its rituals, and the objects which serve as props in their drama. Whether Barney’s subjects lack emotion or possess a kind of heroic stoicism, they are studiously resistant to the entropic doings beyond their board rooms and barbecues.
Tina suggested that I come to Watch Hill for this interview. Her house, a former inn where Watch Hill families stayed while their houses were being groomed for the season, is both the locale of many photographs and where she works.
David Corey Do your photographs provide a way of satisfying an historical urge to create a chronology and to make transient information more permanent?
Tina Barney At a certain point in my life I realized how precious certain things were to me and that I had to record them. I wanted to keep these complex experiences for myself in a certain place. I can’t exactly explain what that means, but when I see a precious moment, I want to record it. So these photographs really are a diary.
DC What is the Tina Barney subject?
TB People probably think of the upper class or of rich people which always disappoints me. What the photographs are about is family, the interaction of people who come from the same family, usually inside their own home. I don’t know if people realize it’s my family or not.
DC For me, it’s almost like looking at Byzantine mosaics, faces look like other faces. I remember seeing a mosaic once in which every apostle had the same face. Apparently the artist had used the same model. There’s something of that in your pictures, a certain visible genealogy . . .
TB Well, I hope so.
DC The size of many of your photographs is four by five, which has a particular effect on the viewer. What’s your intent?
TB I want to make approaching the image possible. I want every object as clear and precise as possible so that the viewer can really examine them and feel as if they are entering the room. I want my pictures to say, “You can come inside here. This is not a forbidden place.” I want you to be with us and to share this existence with us. I want every single thing to be seen, the beauty of it all: the textures, the fabrics, the colors, the china, the furniture, the architecture.
DC So in essence you create a navigational space, not just a space that we view from the outside. We are invited to enter the space with our eyes, navigate the room, look at objects on the shelves. And yet, there is a certain tension in the work. In many ways it’s a world that says you cannot enter, a world that says “Private Compound, No Cars Beyond this Point,” even as the formal strategy says the opposite.
TB If you look at the photographs, there’s a contradiction. You do have to wind your way in there. And at some point your vision could be obstructed. But if you want to, your eye can navigate to the things that are important. For instance, in one photograph the foreground has a man standing with his back towards the viewer. The kind of thing you’re told in the theater not to do. The subject had that combination of, beware, this is a private place, but then if you want there are openings. The man at the far end of the table, the father, is in the clearest focus, the clearest resolution, and the most important.
DC We do tend to believe that the important thing in an image is the big thing that’s got all the visual punch, the thing that captures the eye. But you’re willing to have somebody discover your subject . . .
TB There’s so much going on when I take a picture. It’s like a loony bin. That’s why I’m not always sure what I’m doing. There’s a lot of coincidence, a lot of phenomenon. And then afterwards, I make the decision of whether this is what I want or not. But even now, ten years after this picture was taken, the idea of the big and the small, what’s in focus and what’s out of focus, still challenges my mind. It has to do with all these choices you have to make in life too. You’re not always sure in life what is the most important and you make mistakes.
DC We’ve looked at your family’s photo albums and they’re filled with generations of snapshots. What distinguishes your photographs from the candid family snapshots that most of us have?
TB I don’t know, the invention of the “shoot” is baffling to me. For instance, when I’m with my mother and our family, she’ll be standing next to me with her automatic camera, shooting, and I’m thinking, “What is the difference between her snapshot and mine?” Someone once said to me that I’m authoritative. I really am and so is my work. You also have to consider how my subjects have changed in relation to me as my work has become more well-known. In a way, recognition has become destructive because they have become much more self-conscious and much more eager to succeed in being good subjects. They want to have pictures of their faces on the walls of a museum. But I think that my personality makes a difference, a big difference. It also has to do with the format, the lights.
DC I’ve always thought that much of the tone of the narration is set by the photographer. You call it authoritativeness, I would see it as the commands that precede the click. Get closer. Smile. Don’t look at the camera. Stop horsing around. All of these things influence the narrative content of the photograph. What do you say?
TB I’m sure you’ve realized that even amateur photographers are directing now almost more than ever. My family kids around and even friends imitate me saying, “Get closer together. Move over here. Move over there.” Which makes it twice as hard for me. But there are moments I’m looking for when my subjects have no idea what I’m thinking about.
DC This change in the level of self-consciousness of your subjects, how do you feel about that?
TB Well, it’s very discouraging. It wastes a lot of time to get through that. Now when I shoot people I call them up, I set up the situation, I get the assistant to come. And those are much more difficult shoots than if there’s simply an activity going on, and a lot of people moving around, and I happen to be photographing. Now a kind of posing situation tends to happen. But there’s not much I can do about it. The hard part is that a lot of my time during the shoot has to do with talking and hacking around, pretending . . .
DC So it’s the documentary photographer’s standard technique, which is to keep the camera unloaded for the first half hour, and let people loosen up a bit.
TB Yeah. But there are people I keep photographing, such as my sister, who no matter what happens are unconscious of the camera. That’s why I keep going back to those people. You can do anything and that person’s going to be themself, no matter what. There’s not one phony, artificial bone in their body. Of course it’s very hard to find that kind of person.
DC Clearly in all of your work, in addition to what you’ve described as a kind of respect and love for the life lived and the people who live that life, there seems to be something transgressive. The title that you used when you went to photograph the trading floor at the stock exchange was, Forbidden Territory. And the sense of palpable excitement, the increased heart rate that you reported feeling . . . Is there some of that in the more domestic settings as well?
TB Yes. Those moments are so very specific, I always call them one-in-a-million moments. And I feel as if they’re getting fewer and fewer. What I’m trying to figure out is, do I have to go find them? Or do I just have to sit down and think about what they are? Let’s say at a wedding, there are moments that are so subtle and so different, knowing the whole history of the family. I think it has to do with becoming more patient, having the confidence in myself that that moment will come and that I will be ready, and I just have to sit and hold tight. It’s just that those moments are becoming harder to figure out and harder to find.
DC Are they harder to find or harder to represent? It seems like life is full of moments like that, the telling expression of someone at a wedding who knows something about the bride and groom.
TB Well, I’m thinking of much more abstract, bigger ideas. One of the things I have to do that isn’t so easy, is figure out where I stand in my life and what my attitude about my own life is and towards the life around me. 11 years have gone by since I started taking pictures. What has happened? What is the difference between myself and these very same people in this same place during that time? To stand in this moment and say, What has happened? Last summer, for instance, I really don’t like what I did, and that’s a scary feeling. But what I’m thinking is that I’m very happy in my life right now, very peaceful. And when you’re peaceful and happy, sometimes it’s harder to make art. It’s much easier to find stressful, tragic, difficult moments, when you’re not peaceful and easy, when everything is not running along smoothly. Now my kids are older, there’s not as much chance of trauma happening with them. My personal life is quieter. And so I have to figure out how I’m going to record that.
DC It sounds like the passage of time is a real element in the project. You’ve called the project a saga and certainly that implies that you’re in for the long haul.
TB Did I say that? (laughter)
DC Yes, and I think it’s absolutely appropriate. The sense of heroism in a saga is certainly represented by the scale and monumentality of what you’re presenting. And now it sounds like the bind you are feeling, the need to find some new vantage point or focus for your attention is just what an ongoing narrative brings. You’ve made changes, in camera and in point of view. In each case it’s been a move toward greater intimacy—you’re closer to your subjects and there’s the inclusion of your own image in the mise-en-scène. Doesn’t this seem to be moving in a direction that you’re hoping for?
TB Well, yes, obviously, through the years I’ve gotten closer up but what’s left, the subject smashed right into the lens? How can you go further? The intimacy has to come from something emotional and psychological and from the way I photograph. It has to do a lot with what I ask of the subjects. And what I have to do is believe in myself, that they have always trusted me and probably always will. I know when I’ve gone too far. It’s very evident. And so to just push a little further and see . . . have the collaboration be even more complete and much more between the subject and myself than it might have been before.
DC You say that it’s quite evident when you’ve gone too far. When, for example, have you gone too far?
TB I’m going somewhere to photograph next weekend. And the, “Oh come over, you can do this luncheon, and you can photograph us having breakfast.” And this is what I dream about, the person saying “Come into our lives.” And then she said, “Then we’re going to church.” And I said, “Well, maybe I’ll take along my new camera, and I can do some pictures of you going to church.” And she said, “Oh no. You can’t do that.” This is where it stops. Of course her saying that makes me want to do the situation 50 times more. (laughter) Or let’s say my mother, this beautiful woman, where can I go there? I have seen photographers photograph their parents. Look at Larry Sultan, for instance, and the dialogue with his parents. How far can I go with my mother? So she can keep the beauty that she wants to keep, her dignity. Do you follow somebody into their bedroom or their bathroom?
DC Well, you’ve followed a lot of people into their bathrooms. In protecting your mother’s beauty, you don’t really mean the beauty of self, you mean the way it’s seen by the world. You’re pitting yourself against nature of course.
TB It has a lot to do with her choice. This might be unusual but I always go back to the subject, show them the picture, and get their approval. I don’t show them all the pictures, I just show them ones I might use in public. And only once did someone say no. I tore up the negatives right in front of her. So the people always know what’s going to go out there. I couldn’t do it any other way. There are a lot of photographers who would never do that.
DC Critics have noted that today’s photographers, and certainly you would be at the vanguard of these, are much less likely to be in the streets or in what used to be the exotic locales of railroad yards and skid rows, and much more likely to be examining domestic locales. Do you think this is a repudiation of the exotic as a subject for photography or, as we’re beginning to learn by things such as David Lynch’s work, that the true exotic in our society flourishes behind the pseudo-colonial doorway?
TB It is interesting, this desire to stay at home. I have this feeling that people are lonelier, more lost . . . Don’t you think that’s possible? And that the desire to belong is stronger than ever. Because the American family has disintegrated so badly over the years, and maybe now it’s at a point where people are realizing that they’re alone in the world, and they want to go back to their home so they have something to hold onto.
DC Then anything that documents that locale or seems to be a design for living in some way is fascinating. People look at it as they would any “How To” book, trying to place themselves in the picture it presents.
TB There’s some comfort in watching someone else at home. Maybe because you might not have that yourself. It might have to do with an emotional comfort as opposed to a materialistic comfort.
DC All the great religions have myths with families at their centers . . . People look at the family as a model for their own lives. Now that we’re well beyond the age of faith those photographs . . .
TB Replace religion.
DC At least in that way. The world that you show generally is low in affect, incident, dramatic event . . . Why are people so interested in that view of things? Seems to me that the tabloids and daily talk shows are full of families who are always armed for battle.
TB Don’t you think that a lot of the time they are looking at the interiors and the way people are dressed, into a world that they can only see in Ralph Lauren ads? I think a lot of people are truly touched by them. People always come to me with their own story that has nothing to do with what the story in the photograph’s about.
DC Your images are an armature for their imagination?
TB Yeah. It’s like reading a good novel.
DC You mentioned Ralph Lauren and that’s a name that’s linked with yours, I think, in an unfortunate way. My sense of your photographs is that the settings include things that were achieved, again, over the long haul. Time is a primary subject in your work, the effects of duration. Ralph Lauren is about buying power, creating a stage set for yourself of any sort. A world that can be bought with a charge card and delivered on a truck in a single day. That’s what makes his world completely different from yours. Yours is an aggregation of history, both national and personal. Don’t you get annoyed when people make that mistake?
TB Well, no, because it’s too stupid to get annoyed by. (laughter) But I could talk about Ralph Lauren for a while, because it’s fascinating. A lot of his clothes are imitations of the people’s who are in my life, who wear these styles authentically. That part’s very funny, that his clothes reflect a longing to imitate these people’s lives.
DC Your work is saturated with a certain visual style—a 1950s nostalgia—the clothes, the settings, the activities, all have a 1950s spin.
TB Well, nostalgia’s the most important word of all because nostalgia is the basis of how I began. The fact that I moved out West, that I missed home so badly, that’s when I noticed how precious and important my home was back here. The photographs are based on nostalgia, not only on the nostalgia of this place as opposed to the West Coast where I was living, but also nostalgia for my own childhood.
DC Why the ’50s? I gather it’s the period of your childhood, but the Eisenhower years were eight years of the bland leading the bland; certainly it’s a decade that other people have misgivings about I mean, it’s Cheever territory, Updike, Salinger, and in all of those representations it’s a much more alloyed construct.
TB These writers were young at the time. It has to do with the age that we know best, that we have the best memories of
DC There’s a Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio” which is like a parable of Tina Barney in Watch Hill. A family on Sutton Place get a new radio and suddenly find to both their fascination and horror that all of their neighbors’ conversations are fully audible on the radio. It’s very frightening and it’s very ’50s. Here’s this mechanical device and here’s this very private world that is being . . .
TB I went through the terror of that when I first showed my pictures. And the fear was, will these people hate me? Will they come back and say, “What have you done to me?” Each time a picture would come out that was terribly intimate I would bring it to the people and say, “Is this all right?” And they’d say, “Oh, no problem.” And then showing it I would go through the same terror over again. It is absolutely amazing to me that it has never backfired. If anyone ever comes to me one day and is angry, I won’t be surprised at all. But it must have to do with my true feelings. People have asked me how I choose these subjects and I say, “They’re people who I really care about a great deal.” I deviate once in a while, but there has to be some feeling about these people who I truly, truly like. Sometimes that can happen after meeting somebody for one hour, you know. I can have a feeling about someone very quickly, a very strong feeling.
DC There’s a 1991 photograph, Untitled, which has chairs set up for musical chairs on the beach. Musical chairs is an emblem of competition, loss, potential disenfranchisement, bad timing, if you will. It’s clear from the photograph that all of this is in your mind as the photograph is staged.
TB And it was not staged.
DC Is it unsettling to record an image like that? In a sense you’re commenting on the inescapable destiny of the players.
TB See, that’s where the irony comes in, that you’ve chosen . . . my strongest overall feeling is nostalgia.
DC For the game? for the beach?
TB Being back at that same place in time at that age. This is what I did when I was a child. It doesn’t disturb me because it has to do with a kind of protectiveness, being afraid for these children. They are going to have to face the competition of life, and that’s really what is there, a feeling of protection and worry. I know what’s happening here. I’m afraid for them. The fear that they’re going to have to go out in the world.
DC You sound a lot like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. I recall a novel in which Henry James shows the naivete of Americans in Europe by having his American character say that if the facade is beautiful, the people who live there must be good. Is there any of that irony in your work?
TB I would never say “must be good,” I don’t know if this is what you mean, but my intention is not that there’s a facade, but that I know that people are in there.
DC So you work from inside the house and in a sense want the facade to reflect what already exists.
TB Exactly. It is so hard for people to believe that there is real goodness. And when people look at a rich world, then obviously there is going to be bitterness and envy. And then to say that there is goodness here, that there is no bitterness, that things are going along pretty well. That’s very hard for people to believe. Do you see what I’m saying?
DC I think I do, it brings us back to that earlier issue of what you want to fill the work with in terms of meaning, and what you want to focus on at this point. I agree that the superficial read would be, “They’ve got this and I don’t,” but it seems to me that what universalizes the work is that theme of the twilight of a certain historical moment, the twilight of a certain social entity. That twilight moment is extremely poignant.
TB That’s how it all began. My children were growing up and I felt that this perfect sort of existence was disappearing. And what’s strange and probably quite natural is that I always think it’s going to end, that my children are not going to come back, that the house will not continue to be kept up, that the people will leave, and yet it keeps on going. The kids come back, they get married, they have children. Maybe the anxiety starts at a certain age and goes on until you die. But it’s this place, this town that has been here for so long. Everything has been exactly the same for so long. There aren’t that many places like that in the world, it’s hard to believe.
DC It is. Something that comes up again and again is the relationship between your photographs and TV images, soap operas, and of course, the theater. Can you say something about that?
TB Well, there’s a difference to me between television and theater. The theater that excites me has a lot to do with space, not only on stage, but the space between the actors and the writing and the sets. Pina Bausch has made a deep impression on me through the use of scale, how the people gather on the stage, move around the stage, and also the subject matter. And Sam Shepard absolutely hits home for me. His play called Lie of the Mind in which something happens on one side of the stage and something else happens on the entire other side of the stage. There’s this enormous space between people in which things can go wrong. Even in a space the size of a stage, it can seem that they’re in entirely different locations.
DC That idea of space as dislocation, as separation between people. The narrative of photographs like The Real Estate Office suggest the high-key emotions of a soap opera. It also shares the soap opera’s vision of time. We all know that soap opera time goes on forever. A conversation in a hallway can take two episodes. There’s a great distending of time.
TB You know that you go back to that same place tomorrow, at 1:00. I can’t quite figure out why people are so fascinated, but I know that there is this comfort that the stories can go on forever. There’s also the comfort of the spaces that are chosen, their objects and furniture and fabrics are what people would like to have, it’s people’s dreams.
DC Certainly Ralph Lauren and Masterpiece Theater have made Americans junkies for the visual trappings of a certain life of so-called quality. You’ve spoken before about the quality of the life that you’re recording. What do you mean by quality?
TB Bruce Boice wrote an article on quality and the misuse of that word. And after I read it, I thought, oh dear, I better never use that word again. But I can’t think of a replacement. Let’s say that my definition of quality has to do with the time and care that’s put into the making of things. It’s something that I can identify when I see it.
DC Tell me something about the mores and the social imperatives in the world you’re recording, the do’s and the absolute don’ts. Let’s take the notion of privacy. I sense that privacy is an extremely important value within this community and yet you transgress. You photograph and you publicize. So you cross the line.
TB It’s all context and intention. The key thing is that my subjects believe my intentions for this work are important. It has to do with my having a love and respect for this place that comes up to their standards.
DC And of course there is that other value within the group which is loyalty to your project and to your aspirations.
TB My intentions are good. They trust me. I mean you can go around and ask them but they obviously wouldn’t do this if they didn’t trust me.
DC Critics have said that the photographs lack an intimate relationship of players within the tableau. It seems to me that true intimacy, at least in the way that I define it, is falling into sync with the aspirations of others. Respecting those aspirations, supporting them and trying to make them happen.
TB But not only. Trying to make them continue and not fall apart, making them aware of themselves.
DC There’s a purely informational, documentary level in your work. You are the Margaret Mead of Watch Hill. A culture may be familiar through study but nonetheless transformed by intense scrutiny. What new things have emerged? Do you think you know something and then suddenly you look at your own photographs and you see something new?
TB That’s a complicated question. The sociological examination of the whole is the most interesting part of it all. I don’t even know if new things happen. It’s being aware of the same thing that keeps on happening. That’s even more difficult than to say that new things happen. One of the biggest changes that I would really like to record is what I call the new divorce. For instance, I think that my ex-husband and I successfully pulled that off. In other words, to get divorced after being married for a long time mostly because of the fact that you’ve changed. And yet there is no sort of friction with friends in common, in-laws . . . I see this happening more and more. You watch the children sitting at the dinner table with divorced parents. This is a very interesting sort of love. Things are the same but they’re really not.
DC It would be very hard to represent visually, the subtlety would be a part of it . . .
TB And there are things that I know that nobody else knows. If you follow my work and watch these people through the years, see how the whole body of work is put together, you begin to figure out what’s happening no matter how subtle it is. Romantic relationships for instance, and the relationship between mates.
DC You’ve mentioned that you’re interested in the new generation of computers as a possible direction for the photographs and I know that you’re doing some work with them. How would you imagine using these?
TB I had an idea, a dream in mind, about bringing in some of the narrative of my childhood by looking through all of these photographs, and searching for the correct ones to use in the computers. I had never looked at my own photographs with this intensity—that sort of dissection of an image is very healthy. I had this idea of trying to combine the past and the present, to say something about why I think about the things I think about in the present that stem from things that happened in the past.
DC You seem unquestionably to have moved into the realm of official photographer of your family and your world. Who was the official photographer before?
TB My mother’s father was a passionate amateur photographer. He made beautiful quality photographs of us, and then my mother photographed for our albums, so the interest has always been there from my family.
—David Corey is a freelance writer and critic who lives in New York. His recent work on the photographer WEEGEE has appeared in Talking Pictures (Lookout/Chronicle), Newsday, and at the International Center for Photography. He is the author, with photographer David Levinthal, of Small Wonder, which will be published by Smithsonian in 1995. He also teaches comparative literature and film at Brooklyn College.