so the story goes
The Art Institute of Chicago  
  tina barney
September 16 - December 3, 2006 philip-lorca dicorcia
nan goldin
sally mann
larry sultan

Tina Barney
Philip-Lorca diCorcia
Nan Goldin
Sally Mann
Larry Sultan
Recommended Reading


    Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, 1987 Jill and I, 1993
    Marina’s Room, 1987 Marina and Peter, 1997

    Tina Barney has said, “I began photographing what I knew.” For much of the 1980s and 1990s, this meant taking pictures of her friends and family as they went about their daily lives in affluent areas of Long Island, New York City, and New England. Employing a large-format, 8-by-10-view camera enabled her to create highly detailed images that retain their focus and richness even when made into four-by-five-foot prints. Barney was thus one of the first photographers to present color work on a grand scale that rivaled most twentieth-century paintings. This scale also inspired a deliberate construction of the picture, at times requiring supplementary lighting and the direction of the sitters.

    Her sitters obliged, indulging Barney and her camera at mealtimes, during down moments, and mid-conversation. Her sister Jill became a favored subject for her photogenic nature and chameleon presence, but Barney also photographed other family members: her brother Phil, Jill’s daughter Polly, and her own sons, Tim and Philip, as well as her friend Shiela and her daughter Moya. Often, the backdrops for these subjects are their own highly decorated, if overstuffed, interiors. Floral chintz fabrics and wallpaper, heirloom paintings, and wood-paneled libraries vie for attention behind equally well-appointed figures. Jill and Polly in the Bathroom (1987), for example, shows the two women paused mid-gesture as they navigate the coordinated confines of this particular room. Yet Barney’s gift lies in confounding such easy descriptions. While coordinated bathrobes and décor heighten the intensity of the scene, it is unclear whether Barney made this match or simply noticed it. The room’s suffocating space and smothering rose tones are alleviated only by Jill’s act of drawing back the curtain to reveal something beyond the home and outside its color palette, a gesture that appears so natural it seems impossible to know if Barney choreographed it. These two details alone indicate an approach that easily, even seamlessly, merges qualities that photographic history has often thought distinct: candid immediacy, documentary realism, and tableaulike direction.

    Barney’s photographs expose the emotional and psychological currents that course just beneath the surfaces of perfect trappings and banal gestures. In Jill and Polly in the Bathroom, such tension is evident in Jill’s strained expression, Polly’s turn away from Jill, and the distance between them that persists even in the cramped quarters of such a small room. Barney notes, “When people say that there is a distance, a stiffness in my photographs, that the people look like they do not connect, my answer is, that this is the best we can do. This inability to show physical affection is in our heritage.” While the myth that material comfort ensures personal contentment is an alluring one, Barney’s photographs undermine such illusions, even in later images in which the focus has shifted away from context to the personality and face of the sitter. In these more recent photographs of family and friends—many of which eliminate her directorial approach and allow for more self-presentation to the camera—Barney continues to make photographs distinct from family snapshots or formal group portraits in their refusal to serve as predictable commemorations of happy times, important gatherings, and ritualized affection.


    Web site

    Janet Borden, Inc.

    Books on Tina Barney

    Theater of Manners. Scalo, 1997.

    The Europeans,
    Steidl, 2005.

    back to top

    Next Artist: Philip-Lorca diCorcia

Last updated: May 2006. Best viewed with Netscape Navigator 4.0 or higher.
Reproduction Permission. Copyright © 2006. All rights reserved.