Light on the Pedestal: Depictions of Whiteness in the Photography of Tina Barney
In this paper, I examine the ways in which Tina Barney’s work can be read as visualizing whiteness. I consider this visualization in terms of transparency phenomenon and photography’s historical relationship to racial constructions using an approach to whiteness coming from critical race studies best exemplified in Richard Dyer’s seminal text White. I analyze Barney’s subject matter, while also focusing on her use of composition and palette.
Tina Barney has developed a singular style in her fine art photography. By photographing her family and friends, using a distinctive palette, and concentrating on a way of life that she herself describes as “a style of life that has quality,” Barney has created documents of the domestic world of a segment of America rarely seen from an intimate perspective.
Writing on Barney, which consist primarily of exhibition reviews, tends to focus on class as being central to what is documented in her work. Critics comment on her ability to take photos of a class of people in situations in which one cannot imagine an outsider being given access. I suggest that it is more than just class that is illustrated in these works: what is made possible for the viewer is access to whiteness. Tina Barney being a part of this privileged group is essential to the viewer gaining a level of access to a class around which whiteness is constructed. I propose that Tina Barney’s photography gives a picture of whiteness in a unique way allowing viewers to see how the very transparency of whiteness is constructed visually.
The techniques and traditions that have come to construct modes whiteness that make it difficult to see the “race” of White people are traceable in Barney’s work. The subject matter and “style-less” style of Barney’s work re-creates an image of domestic life that is racial-ized but in its everydayness can be read as differing only in the economic status from the domestic situations of most of (to borrow a phrase from Cornell West) North Atlantic capitalist culture.
Alisa Swindell received an AB in the History of Art from Bryn Mawr College and an MA in Arts Administration from University of New Orleans. While at SAIC, she focused on photography and race in contemporary art. Currently she is developing an exhibition, Exiting Exotica, for fall 2005.
Thesis Advisor: James Elkins, Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism; Visual and Critical Studies
Thesis Reader: Romi Crawford, Director, Visiting Artists Program
Alan Cohen, Adjunct Professor; Art History, Theory, and Criticism