One particular gesture—that of her sister Jill rising from a chair on her wedding day—is the centerpiece of The Reception, part of J.P. Morgan Private Bank’s November Paris Photo exhibition, PhotoPlay: Pictures-in-Pictures.
“I always knew I wanted my photographs to be about family relationships,” says Ms. Barney. Growing up in the eastern United States, she enjoyed a “privileged and sophisticated” upbringing. “I had always been interested in family tradition and ritual—how the family congregated inside the house and what they did.”
Opening image: Tina Barney Self-Portrait (Detail), 2014. Chromogenic print
© Tina Barney, Courtesy of Paul Kasmin Gallery
The settings or context equally intrigued Ms. Barney, whether they were a dining room where the family gathered for Sunday breakfast or a bedroom where teenage sisters waited while a housekeeper made up their beds. Reflecting her family’s interest in art and her mother’s professional attention to fabrics and objects (she was an interior decorator), Ms. Barney has always preferred photographing interior spaces.
To capture the rich detail and color of her sumptuous settings, Ms. Barney produces most of her photographs using a large format view camera with 4 x 5 film. In contrast to today’s digital cameras, “the resolution in these photographs is so beautiful,” she says. “You really see those details, those little things that happen in the interior that interest me so much.”
While working with a view camera afforded her the detail she sought, it also initially posed a challenge, as her subjects had to stand still while she photographed them. That changed in the 1980s, when she began using a strobe light mounted on the field camera. The ability to take a flash photograph with the large format camera freed her to capture moments without sacrificing the intricacies she loved.
Ms. Barney shot The Reception in 1985 at her great-aunt’s apartment, which is where her family always came together for Christmas lunch. Ms. Barney, trying to look inconspicuous while carrying a tripod, heavy camera and 4 x 5 film bags, entered a small den where her sister Jill was sitting.
“I took this picture very quickly,” says Ms. Barney, recalling how she swiftly moved under a black focusing cloth and looked into the ground-glass image, which appears upside down. “Jill just happened to get up—the perfect moment. This is in seconds. I have to open up the lens to focus. I’ve got the film bags between my legs. I yell to my half-brother, Paul, ‘Look at Jill!’ I see that Andrea, my niece’s best friend, has her back to me, and so I quickly yell, ‘Andrea, turn to the left!’”
“The gesture of her getting up from that chair was so beautiful,” she recalls, “not only her beautiful profile, but her designer dress, the bag clutched like a little nest in her hands, which are mimicked by the hands of the figure in the Picasso painting on the wall behind her.”
Taking in everything
Ms. Barney is able to grasp many aspects of an image at once, and to move rapidly. In photographing The Reception, for example, she used the large format camera almost as if it were a handheld, switching out lenses to take multiple images. As she does, she also solves for multiple compositional elements: image size, shape, sharpness, depth of field, as well as placement of the main subject and apparent perspective.
Ms. Barney attributes her tendency to work swiftly to her personality. “One of the things people have said about me is that I’m a very fast moving person. From the day I was born, I’ve been very hyper. And I think that that probably has a lot to do with my ability to take the kind of pictures I take.”
“I am so fast at decision making. Granted, you make mistakes, but then you can lose these candid moments. And that speed has to do with taking in the interior, the fashion, the psychology, the family dynamics, the emotional things that are going on—I am absorbing everything in every way possible in a very short amount of time.”
Overcoming boring and flat
With photographs in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art among other major museums, it may be surprising to learn that for Tina Barney, “the photograph is such a boring, flat, one-dimensional piece of paper.”
“It’s very difficult to create space and scale,” she says, which is why from the start she focused on building narrative and structure into her photographs. She always asks, “What is this picture about? What does it do formally?” To create the narrative, she pays as close attention to the placement of chairs or lamps as to her subjects. She also studied medieval triptychs and the paintings of Dutch and Italian Renaissance masters to understand how to build structure into her images.
When Ms. Barney reviewed the 4 x 5 contact sheet for The Reception, she knew immediately it was a winner. “I probably know I have a winner the second I take it, but there are so many technical things that can go wrong. But that’s the magic of photography—these surprises that happen that you really don’t know until you get the results back.”
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