Tina Barney: A Powerful Perspective

Tina Barney was born in New York in 1945. Although exposed to photography at a young age, Barney begun collecting photographs at the age of 26. By the mid-1970s, she photographed the lifestyles and relationships of her close family and friends, many of whom belonged to the New York and New England’s social elite. The result: a documentation of emotional and psychological undercurrents of perfect trappings and banal gestures. Barney has been featured in the collections of George Eastman House in Rochester, New York; Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Barney currently lives and works in Watch Hill, Rhode Island.


Did you go to art school?

I don’t have a college degree . . . but I come from a family of art collectors. I’ve been surrounded by important art since the day I was born. I educated myself. My father died when I was very young and my brother started collecting art when he was young. He told me how to go look at art galleries. [A few years later] I moved to Sun Valley, Idaho with my kids and there was an art center there. That’s where I learned how to take pictures. Then, I started reading, and I hadn’t really read before. I had my first child when I was 21 . . . I think I really was self-taught.


You always show your photos to your subjects before publishing them. Can you speak about the ethics of portraiture?

What I find quite funny is that my friends who are photographers do not have this terrible fear and guilt I have about exploiting people — even if they’re my sister or my best friend. In a way, you could say I am using them. Through the years, I’ve gotten better about feeling like that . . . I just can’t conceivably show a picture of some- one plastered all over the world, sell it for a nice amount of money, and have that human being not have any clue that’s what’s happening to them . . . I just want you to know what’s happening to you. Most of the time, people don’t care and have no interest in the picture I’ve taken of them.

When people look at your photographs, what would you like to provoke?

My great love is the photograph itself. The photograph is so complicated, and there’s an ambiguity, there’s a structure and a narrative — [well], maybe, not necessarily always a narrative. In other words, the visual parts that make up the photograph are so interesting that you just want to keep looking at it forever. The subject matter is not what, for me, is interesting.


I think your portraiture translates to fashion very nicely. Do you feel that there are a lot of differences when you are doing a fashion shoot compared to your own work?

It depends whether it’s commercial or editorial, you know, even editorial, which I was doing two weeks ago, I have to show the clothes to the magazine and the designer, which, in a way, is sometimes easier for me. I would probably want to think about formal concerns like structure, scale, and space more than they let me, because the clothes come first. It’s a give-and-take, but I definitely try to put as much of what I would like into it.

What gets you started, inspiration or fear?

The fear of getting up in the morning and having nothing to do was so strong that I knew that I had to do something specific. I don’t think I have that fear anymore, but there’s something in my personality that I certainly would never lay around all day doing nothing unless I was pretty damn sick. I’m a Scorpio and I think Scorpios are like that, we get up and we do things every day. When I was 28, I think I had a very strong personality. I was very dramatic. Overly energetic, and I think it was just like a bomb was about to ignite. I just had to do something.


What would you like to be remembered for, as far as your art?

The idea of somehow being able to touch on the agony and ecstasy of family relationships. That includes the space that families live in. It’s hard for me to describe, but, it’s a very difficult thing to do in one photograph. In a play, you can do it; in a movie, you can do it. But not to have dialogue, not to have movement, and to some- how still show the dynamics of what happens — is a challenge.


Read more on Tina Barney in Musée Issue 5: Vol. 1


Interview by Andrea Blanch Photograph of Tina Barney by Andrea Blanch

 All other photographs courtesy Janet Borden, Inc.

Sheila Johnson