Episode 87

Tina Barney on Photography as a Way of Marking Time Across Generations

Interview by Spencer Bailey

To the photographer Tina Barney, a scene can be captured in an instant, but a place is best framed over generations. Across her 40-year-long career, Barney has become internationally renowned for photographing, in this very way, her particular milieus—family, friends, and neighbors in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, most notably, but also in New York and Sun Valley, Idaho. Growing up in New York City with an art collector father, a model-turned-interior-decorator mother, and an amateur photographer grandfather, Barney’s childhood was one brimming with visual culture and artistic influences. Her path to photography, though, was rather circuitous: In her early 20s, Barney joined the Junior Council at MoMA, for which she helped catalog prints in the museum’s department of photography. Immediately intrigued by the medium, Barney then began visiting photography galleries and collecting pictures by the likes of Edward Weston and Robert Frank (then available for around $100 or $200 apiece). Soon enough, she purchased a 35-millimeter Pentax and began making photographs herself.

Ever since, like an ethnographer, Barney has captured the people and places and routines and rituals from the world that surrounds her, and with a rigorous, studied eye, an energetic spirit, and a distinctive formalism. Through a strong sense for beauty and theater, she has the rare ability to create a profound intimacy with her subjects. In a world awash with images, Barney’s stand out for their rich colors and deep focus, as well as for how they distill the dynamics of the communities, across multiple generations, that have been her focus. Particularly with her Watch Hill photographs, she has essentially been photographing the same people, in the same houses, since 1976. As she puts it on this episode of Time Sensitive, “I still find it a miracle that people do and repeat the same things over and over and over, without many things changing whatsoever—except age.” A new book, The Beginning (Radius Books), and a corresponding Kasmin Gallery show (on view through April 22) bring together some of the earliest works by the artist—images taken from 1976 to 1980—thus far largely unseen by the public.

On this episode, Barney talks about what she views as the underlying sources of nostalgia, the fascinating natures of ritual and tradition, and the small miracles that can exist within a single photograph.


Barney speaks about the durational qualities and multigenerational aspects of her work, and what it has been like to photograph some of the same people, in the same houses, for five decades straight.

Barney recalls her upbringing surrounded by Impressionist paintings, talks about her time at a Swiss boarding school, and describes her roundabout path to photography, first as a collector and then as an artist.

Barney discusses her photographic training at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, and her journey toward making large-format prints, which are now in museum collections such as the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Barney talks about how her new book, The Beginning (Radius Books), came to fruition, and how she selected the pictures for it.

Barney touches on several pictures from The Beginning and a corresponding Kasmin Gallery exhibition, including “Waterslide in Fog” (1979), “The Twins” (1977), and “Hot Tub” (1979), and remembers her late partner, Robert Liebreich.

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SPENCER BAILEY: Hi, Tina. Welcome to Time Sensitive.

TINA BARNEY: Hey, Spencer. How are you? Great to be here.

SB: So, I wanted to start today on the subject of the eyes. You’ve written, “To better understand the difference between photography and painting, I had my portrait painted in the late 1980s, which took months. I realized that the most interesting difference between the two methods is in the eyes of the subject. In a finished painting, the eyes are an accumulation of the time it took to make the portrait, as opposed to in a photograph, where they are the result of the fraction of a second it took to press the cable release.” I was hoping you might elaborate on this a bit and speak to the power of the eyes in a photograph, and the relationship of that to the rapid speed in which a photograph is taken.

TB: Thank you for choosing that, because I don’t know where you found that, but it’s so interesting that I haven’t thought about it enough. But now that we’ve got time here, I’d like to. So, let’s just say, in order to pose for a portrait—and let’s just think about the portraits that have been made throughout the history of art—if you look into the eyes of the subject, what’s in those eyes? And how much is in the eyes? Can you read a person through their eyes? And why can you? Let’s say you don’t see the nose and you don’t see the hair or the lips, and if you’ve isolated the eyes, could you really read what that person’s saying or thinking or feeling? I don’t know the answer to that, but I think it’s a great question. 

So, the painting is an accumulation of the time it took to make that painting. A photograph is a thirtieth of a second, a fifteenth of a second, et cetera. Then why, in the eyes, can you tell what’s going on? I actually don’t know the answer to that. I also think that there’s no way that the viewer can isolate all the other parts of the human being, not only in their bodies, what they’re wearing, and the surroundings of where they’re sitting or where they’re standing, to isolate the eyes that much so that the eyes tell the whole story. So, I don’t know the answer, but I just think it’s fascinating to think about.

SB: And how do you think about eyes specifically in your own work—in the pictures you’ve taken?

TB: Well, I’m thinking about all those things. Depending on the kind of camera, there’s so much you can see, and whether the person’s wearing glasses or what the lighting is like. I don’t think I think about them specifically by themselves. But a lot of the times when I take a picture—and a lot’s going on an awful lot of the time—I tell the subject to look into the lens. Not at the lens, but into the lens. And I refer back to that because once I read an article about Bette Davis. (You can’t believe how many young students have never heard of Bette Davis when I tell this story. I hope you have heard of Bette Davis.)

But at one point, someone wrote about Bette Davis and the power that she had as an actress, and they said that Bette Davis had the ability to look right through the camera out through the other end. And I don’t know if that has to do with what the photographer was saying to her, or just the concentration that she had. But I think it has to do with concentration, and it has to do with maybe what’s going on in the brain, that comes out through the eyes.

SB: This makes me think of your sister, Jill [Isles Blanchard].

TB: And Jill wears glasses a lot of the time. Those photographs of Jill are, I think, powerful and intimate because I know her so well. And also, I’ve often mentioned why I go back to the same subjects more than once, and it has to do with those subjects—let’s say Sheila is the other one; Sheila and Jill—because they know who they are. And what I mean by that is that that person or that subject has a very strong sense of themself without being affected by anything. That there’s no crap, that there’s no bullshit. They might have a hard life, they might have had a hard day, but they still know who they are. And again, that’s hard to find.

SB: I should mention here that for around twenty-five years now, unbeknownst to, I think, most people who are familiar with your work, you have been drawing and painting snapshots of your family and your work—pastels, watercolors, crayon and pencil drawings. How do you think about your time spent drawing and painting versus making pictures? And could you speak about the role of the eyes in those drawings?

TB: Well, first of all, I am such an amateur painter that I don’t even know if I even can draw eyes or paint eyes. 

SB: [Laughs]

TB: And I don’t think of them, actually, a lot because I think I’m thinking of the whole exterior, what the people are wearing. But I choose the photograph because there’s something that draws me to it. And I actually don’t make them very big. The biggest I’ve made is eleven by fourteen, so I don’t think I really concentrate on painting the eyes because the eyes are so difficult to do. I think that what interests me about making those drawings or watercolors is that—I’m doing them all from looking at one of my photographs I’ve made—is that I look at that photograph in depth more than any time in which I’ve made it. And that part I like. It’s really thinking about that person. It’s like touching that person. It’s very intimate. It’s like spending time with that person. So, those are the other reasons I like it.

There’s also that feeling of a rush, and I get that rush from photographing with that instant of pushing the cable release. And the rush in painting comes from just a stroke or one little tiny second in which I’m making a brushstroke that I know is pleasurable or what I wanted it to be.

SB: Of taking pictures, you’ve said you rarely spend more than an hour with your subjects. Sometimes, you never even see them again. How do you think about this “shoot time,” if I could call it that, the short period of time you have to create the thing that then lasts for a long time, potentially eternity?

TB: Well, I don’t think about the eternity part. 

SB: [Laughs]

TB: Believe me. But I think anybody that knows me, or maybe they don’t know how fast I do things, and it’s really bullet-fast. I think, if you ask people that I’ve worked with on a fashion shoot, they all know. It’s literally, I walk into a room, and I think if you took maybe sixty seconds, maybe two minutes at the max, I roam my eyes around, and it’s like darts. I say, “Okay, that’s good, that’s good, that’s good.” And so, I don’t think about the fact that that’s going to last long. But what I’m getting at, again, is it’s almost like devouring something. It’s almost like when you’re hungry, and you see a great buffet table laid out, and you’re just like, “Oh, I want one of those, I want one of those, I want one of those.” And you just start putting the stuff on your plate, and you’re just devouring it. And that’s really what it’s like. It’s fast and quick and it’s greedy, and it’s just trying to get at that rush of the capture. Which I think most photographers are searching for.

SB: How do you get into that head space? Because I imagine it requires a tremendous amount of energy.

TB: Well, first of all, from the second I wake up in the morning, I have that energy. I’m that kind of person. But the part that’s difficult is sometimes I go on to a place, a location, and that could be for my own work or it could be for a job. And what turns me on isn’t there. It’s like going to a party when you’re looking for romance, and the person isn’t there. You look through the bar, and they’re just not there. It’s just like that. And so, that’s discouraging. But what I’ve learned, I mean, let’s say I’ve traveled all the way to China or India to photograph, and I know that’s my time, I can’t go back. And I learned to be patient, which is very hard for me, and that if I sit there and think about it and work at it, I can make something come. A lot of times, I know right away this is not going to happen. So, it’s hit or miss.

SB: You’ve said your definition of quality “has to do with the time and care that’s put into the making of things.” Could you speak to the “making” aspect of your work? What, to you, makes for a “quality” photograph?

TB: It’s going to take a minute to think because…. For my own work, you mean?

SB: Yeah.

TB: I think that, well, of course it gets harder and harder as time goes by, almost because I feel as though I’ve done everything. But I think that I’ve mentioned over and over again, when I get asked about what I do, that the formal parts of putting a picture together is the part that excites me the most. And I realize that the word formal is becoming extinct because most people I talk to don’t know what that means. I learned that word maybe from the photography classes I took, maybe from Jan Groover, the photographer who I made a film on, whose mantra was, “Formalism is everything.”

And so, let’s just say that, to me, formalism is the structural parts that make up a photograph, or make up a work of art, how it’s put together. That has to do with scale, space, light, and form—all the things you think most artists would be looking for. Now, in a minimalistic work of a painter, I don’t know where that form comes from. I don’t know enough about making other kinds of work. But for me, it’s that, and that sometimes there are things that can happen that I might not have done before. 

So, I don’t know if that answers your question, but those are the things that have to do with quality. It doesn’t have to do with finding the right subject, and yet, sometimes, that is key. It’s the things that surround that subject that really are very important to me, and almost more important to that than the subject itself—the human subject.

SB: Well, this is a great segue, because I did want to circle back to something you were mentioning earlier, which is this durational quality of your work and the subjects you’ve photographed time and again. Your sister, Jill; your brother, Philip; your sons, Tim and Phil; your friends, Susan, Sheila, and Kik. What’s it been like for you to shoot these subjects so intimately across decades—this across-time element of the pictures?

TB: I think that.… [Pauses] I think that to answer that is so profound that I don’t think I can answer it myself. And it really has to do with.… [Pauses] It has to do with how much you love somebody, and how can you mark that? How can you tell somebody? How can you show somebody in a lifetime as a human being? You can give them presents. You can build the Taj Mahal. I mean, we can think of the things that people do for love, and it’s just not enough. It’s just not enough. People write books, and we know that there are books that show that. They make movies. And so, it’s not unscripted, but an automatic practice that I just started and kept doing. Then, also, I was thinking of the ease of using the same subject and that I get to do what I want to do because I know that those subjects are easy to work with, and they’re not inhibited.

And so, it has a lot to do with all those different things. Plus, the fascination of watching things change through time. This comes from my teacher Mark Klett, who made a project called the “Rephotographic Survey [Project],” in which he and his partners, Ellen Manchester, JoAnn Verburg, et cetera, went back to where [William Henry] Jackson and [Timothy H.] O’Sullivan—the photographers—photographed landscape in the same place at the same time, and because Mark was a geologist, they actually marked, by watching the sun, et cetera, exactly the same place at the same time, maybe more than once at a time. And that had to do with following something through time and seeing the change through time. I think that that really made a big imprint on me.

SB: While we’re in this part of the conversation, I have to bring up the pictures of Marina and her father, Peter, starting with “Marina’s Room” in 1987, then another photograph in 1990, and a third in 1997. I think when it comes to considering time in your work, I find this trio of pictures particularly potent and powerful, even poignant. What’s your perspective on time across these images, and maybe for the listeners who haven’t seen it, could you describe the first image, “Marina’s Room,” and how that compares to the third one?

TB: So Peter Tatischeff was an art dealer, and he gave me my first show ever. He had a beautiful daughter named Marina. So I can’t remember when I…. I think it was ’87 that I photographed them for the first time and I asked if I could go to their apartment. So that’s how that first photograph happened. She was on that bed. It’s also the first time that I used exterior lighting. I found an assistant who could do lighting, and he stuck a light in that closet behind them, which makes a huge difference. She had that dress on and the whole thing was perfect. 

Then I thought, Why not go back and photograph them again? The last picture was done with an eight by ten. It’s vertical, so that changed. That’s not as complicated as one might think. It just was the chance of going back, and definitely was very much a re-photographic survey, because the room didn’t change. Then she changed so much.

SB: And Peter, too.

TB: Peter, yeah. A teenage daughter, smoking. [Laughter]

SB: Philosophically speaking, how do you think about time in your work? I know you alluded to this when speaking to the durational quality, but I think this multigenerational context is really interesting. You’ve essentially been, in many respects, photographing the same small group of people, in the same houses, since 1976.

TB: I love it. I love the fact that I’ve done that. The whole part of recording something historically, it’s just a pleasure. But also, the town I live in I love so much and just—

SB: Watch Hill.

TB: Yeah, recording that and keeping that recorded somehow is just a wonderful thought. Of course, that’s been done through history, but I’m sitting there every day of my life, and I think, Why not do this? But also, what it comes down to is I really like making pictures. I thought, Okay, I have the subject matter here. As I’ve said, it’s easier to walk out the door and have the same people than…. I’ve gone to Europe, I’ve gone to China, I’ve gone to India, and found that those pictures, in those travels—even though “The Europeans” was, I think, a very good body of work—it’s still not the same as being home. It’s not the same thing. So it’s just a pleasure. That’s what I say. I’m glad to be part of it.

SB: Another time element, of course, is that there’s the role of summertime. Most of these pictures are taken in the summer. Aside from the obvious fact that it’s Rhode Island in the summer, why meditate so much on the summertime? What is it about those particular months that seem to be photographic gold for you?

TB: Well, as I started showing my work with [the gallerist] Janet Borden, and as that ball started rolling, you sort of think, Oh, good. I’d like to have another show. I’d like to get these out there in the world. I remember, also the—I guess you’d call it stress, or the fear that it’s not going to happen again, and then the waiting time, like most photographers. I’d wait through May. I’d wait through June. Then I’d realize it was the Fourth of July, and bam, it all starts happening. Before that, there was just nothing there. It was very quiet, very empty. All the people start coming at the same time, and they’d leave at the same time. So this was the time that I had to do what I did. 

There’s literally nobody [in Watch Hill] at the other times of the year, nobody walking down the street. I’m the only one right now, for instance, living there [in February]. There are one or two other people with lights on, and that’s it.

SB: [Laughs] There’s this profound sense of nostalgia, and I would even say homesickness, in your pictures. Could you speak to that a little bit?

TB: Well, I use that word, and nostalgia is the word I like. I believe if you look it up in the dictionary, it’s the desire to go back to a prior time, usually times that were happy, maybe sad, but it’s to go back. It’s interesting to think, that feeling usually is melancholy. If you ask people, each person, “What is that feeling?” there’s usually a sadness to it because you can’t retrieve that time. So maybe people make work or write about the past to do the best they can to bring it all back, without being able to in real life.

SB: Connected to this, there’s also the themes or roles of tradition and ritual, which are so central to your work. How do you see those connecting to nostalgia?

TB: Well, I think again, the repetition of the Fourth of July, the auction, or the taking down of the American flag, or.… Let’s see. We can think of many of them. The field day. All those things. First of all, the reason that I gravitated towards them is because my subjects would be there, and I would have a feast of being able to do many different things.

But then, also, there’s the nostalgia that it’s happening again, that life goes on, that there’s no end, that it keeps going. That is a miracle to me. I still find it a miracle that people do and repeat the same things over and over and over, and they love it and they want it, without many things changing whatsoever—except age. The grandparents get older, et cetera. Children are born and the grandparents get older.

SB: So, let’s go back to your early life. Before we started this interview, we were talking about this. Your maternal grandfather was an amateur photographer—

TB: Yes.

SB: He took pictures at family events and introduced you to photography and the darkroom when you were little. Your father [Philip Henry Isles] was an art collector. Then there was your mother [Lillian Fox], this incredible model who had a strong sense of style and color. I was hoping maybe you’d paint a picture of your childhood, if you can, and also talk about your stepfather [Stephane Groueff], who I wasn’t familiar with until you had mentioned it, who had been the [New York bureau chief] of Paris Match in the U.S.

TB: Well, I think this would take about ten hours to tell the story, and it sounds as if I had made it up. But the combination of my parents is what’s interesting, because my mother is from Brooklyn—very normal, nice, sweet family. But she decided she wanted to be a model. But, at the same time, her father was an amateur photographer. So he not only brought his four-by-five, and I have the four-by-five glass-plate negatives in which he brought that camera around with him. I can’t figure out—I need a historian—whether he brought it to war or brought it to just to his practices as a soldier. But then he also recorded his family. He had many different kinds of cameras, and then had his own—when he retired from the army—little darkroom that he would drag me down under. I wasn’t interested. But he always, when he came to visit us, because we lived near them, would have about three cameras hanging from his neck. He had a stereo camera, and he photographed all of us. We have all those photographs. So he recorded our family.

A photo of Barney’s family taken for Vogue in Sands Point, Long Island, in May 1949. (Courtesy Tina Barney)

Then my mother was a model, and she continued to dress beautifully through her whole life. She even brought me to a French fashion show when, I think, I was 14, which I’ll never forget. So that made a major imprint on me. I was aware of fashion because of her. Then she became an interior decorator. So I had two fantastic visual influences around me. 

Then my stepfather, who she met and then married after she divorced my father—she met [him] in St. Moritz while skiing with my father. He was Bulgarian. He escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, ended up in Europe, and he saw my mother in a bar at the Palace Hotel. Then they got married, eventually. I have pictures of my sister and I at their wedding. He was a great influence because he just adored my sister and myself. So that was a very sophisticated background because I met the head of Paris Match magazine [Raymond Cartier], who was one of the great journalists in the world, at a very young age. I could go on and on, describe the places that I was brought to, the people I met. It was a pretty multilayered, wonderful childhood.

SB: At age 14, you head off to boarding school in Switzerland—your choice. Why did you decide to leave home for Switzerland, and what was your time in Switzerland like?

TB: Well, I don’t know why. I remember going up to my father and asking him if I could go to boarding school and him bringing home the brochures of the boarding schools. What’s strange is I was such a terrible student at the school I went to in New York, the Spence School. Terrible. D-minus. Not C-plus, D-minus. 

SB: [Laughs]

TB: I’d bring my report card to my father and he’d say, “Oh, come on. You can do better than this.” Then I decided to go off, and I don’t know why. I remember getting on a plane at 14 to go to Switzerland, and I thought, Why wasn’t I terrified? I guess people did that in those days.

I went to the school. I had no idea how strict it was—I mean, like convent strict. I had three roommates, and we were not allowed to speak English. So I learned how to speak French there. Then my father died, while I was there, at the age of 14. He was 49. That changed our lives. So I went back to the Spence School to graduate from there, and then got married when I was 20. I went to college for four months. My mother dragged me to Europe because she thought I was going to marry the boyfriend I was going out with. That’s not the person I ended up marrying. But anyway, I came back and got married at 20 and had my first child at 21.

SB: There’s so much there. But I think before we jump forward a bit, I do think it’s important to stay on this moment of age 14: You’re over in Europe; your father passes away. In retrospect, I’m wondering, back to the nostalgia question, do you think the search for nostalgia in your work, losing him, that precious time with him, that that’s connected?

TB: I’ll never know that, but now that you mention it, it might be. I have no idea. I’ve never gone to a shrink in my whole life. So now you’re my first shrink that I’ve ever met. You might have discovered something I never knew. [Laughs] Could be.

SB: Well, back to Spence, and what an incredible few years, that little period of time where you come back, and you decide, “Okay, I’m not going to go to college.” I did want to touch on Spence, though.

TB: Oh, wait. I have a missing link in there, too. Well, you finish what you were going to say. I forgot, there was a very important year in there, at 19.

SB: So back to New York. At Spence, you had this incredible art history teacher named Margaret Scolari. I wanted to mention her here because I think the story of Tina Barney couldn’t really be told without Margaret. I was hoping you might just talk a little bit about her and her long-term impact on you.

TB: Margareta—I think that’s how we pronounced it. 

SB: Oh! [Laughs]

TB: Well, I think what’s strange is to believe that I was living in a house filled with Impressionist paintings that we never talked about. I knew who the artists were on the walls, I knew how to pronounce their names with a correct accent, but we never talked about them. So then I’d go back to school one day, and there’s this history of art teacher who’s really like a drill sergeant, kind of scary, really strict. She starts flashing slides on the screen, and it was thrilling. I don’t think I was alone. I think all of us were thrilled. That’s all she did, was she’d flash slides on the screen and say who the people were. 

Now, that year, our class had a trip to Greece, where we got to see some of the work that she put on the screen. So that was one thing that was very interesting. That’s all I can say, is that she really excited me. It’s funny to think that somebody outside of my home would excite me about art, but she did.

SB: I want to pause here for a big Museum of Modern Art–related question. Your life has been incredibly linked to and profoundly transformed by this institution. First, there was Margarita’s husband—

TB: Margareta. Let’s find out how to pronounce that.

SB: [Laughs] Margareta

TB: I think it was Margareta.

SB: [Laughs] Margareta’s husband, Alfred Barr, who was the great director at the Museum of Modern Art.

TB: I think he was the first. I think we have to look that up.

SB: Yeah, I think he was. It’s a tenuous but interesting connection to MoMA. But then, in the early seventies, you joined MoMA’s Junior Council, for which you helped catalog prints in the museum’s department of photography.

TB: Oh, don’t make that bigger than it was. Okay. Shall I go back in there and get that chronology fixed up? Is that okay?

SB: Yeah, sure.

TB: There are some missing links.

SB: Okay.

TB: Okay. I’m in high school, tenth grade, I had Margareta Scolari as a teacher. I then graduate from Spence and come back, and go to [Briarcliff College] for four months, where my mother dragged me out of because she thought I was going to get married to my boyfriend. We go to Europe, I come back, and then decide to go to Florence, Italy, at 19 and live there with a friend of mine who wanted to be an opera singer, and I almost married an Italian.

I come back, and my brother saved my life, he said, “You can’t marry this guy.” Then, the next year, I marry John Barney, American, who I met a long time ago. So that’s how that sequel is. Then I have [my son] Tim at 21, and then a friend of mine, Ali Anderson, comes in and says, “Hey, would you like to work on the Junior Council at MoMA voluntarily?” So that’s that sequence.

SB: Got it. After that, you have this big moment in 1983 with “Big Pictures by Contemporary Photographers,” which featured your four-by-five color print of “Sunday New York Times.”

“Sunday New York Times” (1982) by Tina Barney. (Courtesy the artist and Kasmin, New York)

TB: Well, before that, because of that Junior Council job, I started collecting photography. I think that’s interesting. There were two galleries, and through MoMA, they gave me the names of the galleries. I went in and started learning about contemporary photography, and I started buying Edward Weston, Robert Frank, when you could buy them for $100 and $200. I didn’t buy a lot, but that’s when I became interested in photography. Then we moved to Sun Valley, Idaho.

SB: Which we’ll definitely get to. I just want to stay on MoMA, though, because there was also your major 1990 solo exhibition there, and your work was also featured in a 2004 exhibition, “Fashioning Fiction in Photography Since 1990.” I’m sure I’m leaving other things out, but the question I wanted to get to was: How do you think about MoMA across all of this time and its role in your life and career? Because it’s so interesting how this one institution is this decades-long throughline—since you were a child, basically.

TB: Well, not a child, but—

SB: A teen.

TB: Let’s say teenager. I think that might have to do with John Szarkowski, who was the head of photography. I think it might have to do with MoMA being interested in photography, maybe more than other museums. I’m not sure. But I feel like that was true. They must have had an approachability through the Junior Council and other parts of MoMA that made it accessible, when I think back to what it was like. Then meeting Janet Borden was pivotal, her connection and all the photography people.

SB: She had seen your work at a MoMA exhibition.

TB: She saw it at “Big Pictures.” That’s the first time she saw it. But I had been buying photographs from her as a client because she worked at Robert Freidus Gallery.

SB: For the listeners who don’t know, Janet Borden was your first gallerist.

TB: Yes. So that’s how all that happened. So that was a long connection to MoMA through all those different reasons.

SB: And another pulled-back question I wanted to ask, which connects to Florence, was about Italy, particularly Florence and Rome, and Italian Renaissance architecture. It’s not lost on me that some of the things you were talking about earlier—color, light, proportion, framing—these are all essential aspects of your work, and they’re also essential aspects in Italian Renaissance architecture. Could you speak a bit about your time in Italy, and also what led you to Italy specifically, and how you think about this “Italy time” in the context of your work?

TB: Well, I think you’re reading more into it than what really happened.

SB: [Laughs]

TB: But the reason I got to Florence was I had a very good friend who I grew up with who wanted to be an opera singer, and her name was Estelle McGowan, and she went over to Florence and lived with an Italian family. And I said, “Okay, I’ll come, too,” and that’s how that happened. Through that Italian family, they hired for me a little old lady that I went out with, and I feel like it was once a week, maybe twice a week, and she would take me to all the great, not only museums, but little churches in Florence, by myself, to teach me about the Italian or the Florentine Renaissance. And I even made two books, all written in Italian, and kept postcards of everything she showed me, and did that all on my own. 

Then the rest of the time I was with this boyfriend, so it was a pretty good combination. I didn’t think about that Florentine Renaissance-ian background when I made photographs. It really was more of the study of Caravaggio and space, and those Italian artists that influenced me. So I don’t know. I think just being there, speaking the language was wonderful, but it sort of stayed there. I don’t think I went further than that.

SB: And you went back to Italy in 1996 as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome.

TB: And that was separate from the Florentine connection. I had a friend that I met who was half Italian, half American, and she really helped me find the people I photographed in Rome. And there was a domino effect, that one friend would lead me to another person. But then I began realizing that Europeans marry other nationalities in Europe. So one Italian woman would say, “Oh, you have to meet my cousin who married an Austrian,” and that was a domino effect. For eight years, I photographed in Europe, six different countries, and made that project called “The Europeans.”

SB: Okay, so zooming back in [laughs], you get married in 1966, at age 21, then in 1973 you move with your husband and two young sons from New York City to Sun Valley, Idaho. Unbeknownst to you at the time, this move to Sun Valley will change your life forever. Tell me about your time there and also the Sun Valley Center for the Arts [now the Sun Valley Museum of Art], how it shaped you as an artist.

Barney (front row, third from left) with fellow students at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts photography workshop led by Duane Michals in 1977. (Photo: Peter de Lory. Courtesy Tina Barney)

TB: Well, yeah, I owe my whole career to that move and my ex-husband’s choice to go there. And not only was it the most fun you could ever imagine, but there was an art center there, and all the photographers that I’d been looking at or maybe even bought work of would come there to teach. And sometimes there’d be three students in the class and/or four. And that’s where it all began really.

The whole subject matter of my work comes from, I think, the fact that I moved to a place in America that was so extraordinarily different from where I grew up. And as we started talking about each other, as you would if you were a student in college, the friends I had started realizing I came from a very different place than they did, and then I realized, Oh, I guess I did. And then I’d go back [to Watch Hill] in the summers and start photographing, and that’s where that first black-and-white body of work from 1977 began.

SB: And the nostalgia and melancholy we talked about, was that rooted in some of that Sun Valley?

TB: Very much. Because Sun Valley had nothing to do with that tradition or ritual. People were new, they came in, but there was also the color, the fabrics, the clothes people wore, the lack of age in the houses, and it just stood out more and more. Also, the gestures of how people stood, how they talked, how they walked, how they dressed. And granted the times, the fact that it was the seventies, made things very different, but it was more exaggerated there because it was really like going to college. My friends that I lived back East with, we were pretty grown up. We already had kids, even though we were just a couple of years older. We were like grownups. We had our own houses, et cetera.

SB: I wanted to take a moment here for 1983, which is the year you divorced your husband and left Sun Valley. It’s an important year in your life in so many ways, also because it was the year you started using a large format four-by-five after shooting with your thirty-five-millimeter Pentax for so long. So what led you to the four-by-five? Was there an auspicious transition from your divorce in your life to starting with this camera? How do you think about 1983?

TB: Well, you’re reading more into that…. 

SB: [Laughs]

TB: It had to do with Mark Klett, my teacher, who I admired. He used a four-by-five, and so I watched him and Ellen Manchester, the friends he had, who talked about photography day and night, talked about so many things that I’d never thought about, of the history of photography and the use of a view camera and what it did. And of course, I thought, Well, I want to do that, too. The bad part was I started using it just as I left Sun Valley, so I had to learn on my own, but it really had to do with Mark Klett using that camera.

SB: And how do you think about the time with the four-by-five? I mean, you’re under this black curtain.…

TB: Well, first of all, everybody back in Rhode Island thought I was crazy because they had never seen a camera like that—and luckily they got used to me—and that made it very difficult. Also, on top of that, I was very untechnical, and always have been, and I struggled. But I knew what I wanted, and I’ve said this before: A lot of artists don’t know what they want, and they might be technically proficient. I knew what I wanted. I just had to learn how to get it.

It took quite a while before I actually hired an assistant and had my first assistant, but my assistants have taught me the most that I know because I didn’t have any teachers after that. So I’ve started learning from them and learning about lighting, and that’s really how it sort of dominoed and developed.

SB: And your work, of course, starts getting noticed at this time. We mentioned the MoMA exhibition, but there were these two other milestones in the eighties, amongst many: Your participation in the 1987 Whitney Biennial, and as far as I can tell, your first solo museum show, which was at the Denver Art Museum in 1989.

TB: I think you skipped the most important thing after using the four-by-five, which was making a large photograph. And that happened, again, just standing in that little darkroom in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the mountains in the middle of nowhere. And a friend walking in and saying, “Hey, Tina, you know, can make your pictures bigger.” And she came from California. In Berkeley, there was a lab that could make them, I think, thirty by forty inches. But what’s interesting about hearing that story is it sounds so very simple, but then you think about the first time that maybe Edison turned on a light bulb or the person who invented the first wheel or the first iPhone and that first time, and was it as simple as something like that? As someone walking into a room and saying, “Hey, you know, you can do it like this”? And it really happened like that. 

That has to do with technology. I think it has to do with Kodak making the paper big enough. And so I sent them to this lab in Berkeley where quite a few of us did—I think Richard Misrach did. That was the beginning of that format and that fad and that revolutionary step in the history of photography, and making it on one big piece of paper. Then I found out one step later, through Anne Tucker, who was the director of photography in Houston [at the Museum of Fine Arts], that I could make them even bigger. So it was a very slow stepping stone, probably a year in between those two different steps of one size of the paper, et cetera.

SB: What do you think that shift in size did to you as a person making pictures?

TB: I think what it did was all the details in a room, all the things that I was curious about, the objects people collected, the paintings, the furniture, the flowers—all those details came out. And the room itself, the spaces, became such a part of the image, besides the people. Technically it was very difficult, lots of mistakes, lots of blurry this and that. And I talk about my ratio because I’d like to say at the height, in the 1980s, ’90s, that period…. And don’t forget I’m talking about one month a year I would photograph. I would take, at the most, four hundred sheets of film. That means four hundred pictures. And then I realized, I would have a show at Janet Borden every other year, and there’d be nine pictures in that room. So that means—think about that—nine pictures out of, let’s say, eight hundred sheets of film. That’s the ratio that Janet and I chose very carefully. We were very strict. There are hundreds of pictures that have never been seen and [are] just not interesting, lying in file cabinets in a storage room.

So anyway, I usually knew the minute I took the picture whether it was a winner or not. And we only used Polaroid then. That was the only way we could see the result right away. 

SB: Tell me about 1990, that MoMA show. What was that like for you?

TB: Of course, it was a thrill. Catherine Evans was the curator. She was young. I can’t remember what title she had, but she was the curator. It was almost too exciting to even believe, really. Very hard to believe. And I think it was just a big moment. But MoMA would have these shows of new artists fairly often. It was wonderful. I mean, I wish they did that again. Well, maybe they do, in some ways, but it was more often than I think they do now. It just was wonderful, to be able to show these big pictures then.

SB: We’ve touched on some of the exhibitions, but I also wanted to bring up your books: Theater of Manners, from 1997; The Europeans, from 2005; Players, from 2011; and your Rizzoli monograph, from 2017. And now, The Beginning, your new book from Radius. How do you think about this trajectory, these books?

TB: Anyone who has made a photography book knows what living, breathing hell it is. It is work beyond imaginable. But I was lucky enough to have met Walter Keller, who had a publishing company called Scalo in Germany. He really was the first “it” guy for making photographs, and Gerhard Steidl was the man who printed the books, and that’s where Gerhard started. So I got into that niche, and once you’re in there, you hope to be able to publish with that company as it goes on. But boy, it’s not easy to do. I think it was an extraordinary experience. I mean, it’s so terrible, though, you almost think, Oh God, I never want to do this again. And I’m not going to go into why it’s so hard. It’s just more work than anybody can possibly believe.

But what is important is it really is the only record because if a viewer can’t get to a gallery you might not have a show. Now we have the internet, which is great, but seeing an image on the internet is not the same as seeing it in a book. So the books really are the things that are going to last through history.

A self portrait by Barney taken in 2014. (Courtesy the artist and Kasmin, New York)

SB: Let’s go to The Beginning, this new book—which, not to confuse listeners, is the title of the book, not the beginning of your time. But it is really at the root of your photography, and it’s also the focus of this exquisite show that opened at Kasmin recently. What did it mean to you to put together this collection of fifty-some early photos? And was it like staring back in time? How’d you go about selecting this particular group of pictures?

TB: What has been mentioned is that it was during Covid. I’m sitting in Rhode Island with my partner, Bob [Liebreich], and myself, and I’m thinking, Okay…. You know how you have to go into that closet and clean out your old clothes? Well, it’s the same thing. I never would’ve gone in there through these thirty-five-millimeter negatives if it hadn’t been for Covid. And I did that very kind of quickly. I’m not the kind of person that treasures things. I’m just bam, bam, bam, quick like that. Then I scanned them, and then I met Tod Lippy, and that was pivotal. Tod Lippy was the publisher of a magazine called Esopus, a brilliant magazine that I can’t even describe—it’s so multilayered—and he also designed books.

I asked him if he would make a dummy of these pictures, because otherwise there’d be no way of finding a publisher. And he made a dummy that was so fantastic without [my] telling him one single thing about the people in the pictures, anything really about myself. And so we went about trying to find a publisher for the book, and luckily Spencer Bailey told me about Radius.

SB: This is true. You heard it here first.

TB: Which I did not know about. And it—

SB: Helps to have a twin brother [Trent Davis Bailey] who also makes pictures.

TB: All right, so thank you, brother. But that was a wonderful segue, and I think that David Chickey, the editor and publisher of Radius, has made a book that is just wonderful, thoughtful to Tod and myself, and everything I could want.

SB: I have to also highlight here that it’s a square-format book, which is quite unusual. You don’t see a lot of square-format books.

TB: Well, I didn’t know that, because the Rizzoli book was square, too. I just like it. Yeah, I like everything about it.

SB: It’s tricky to talk about photographs on a podcast, but I was hoping we might try to capture it here in words somehow, highlighting a few of the prints that are in the book and the exhibition and their backstories. Maybe we could start with the cover image, “Waterslide in Fog,” 1979. What made that cover-worthy to you? Why is that image so special in your mind?

“Waterslide in Fog” (1979) by Tina Barney. (Courtesy the artist and Kasmin, New York)

TB: Well, first of all, to choose the cover really is agony because it’s such a big decision. And David Chickey made some sample covers for me, but then I made some small ones that I think helped me a lot. But I think that photograph is really important to me because it’s so strange. It’s the kind of photograph I don’t know if I could ever make again, just because of the geography of where that waterslide was, how I was allowed to climb up this dirt pyramid to get to the top. Because I tried to go back last year and do it, and they wouldn’t let me, because everybody’s afraid of being sued. And then the fact that I really will never really know what that photograph is about. 

The ideas I had at that time were so serious and dramatic. I think it had a lot to do with being in workshops where people just beat themselves to death to try to talk about their work that’s thumbtacked to the wall, and being with photographers in the seventies that were so angst-ridden and would have such dramatic stories to tell about their photographs or ideas of what they wanted their photographs to be. And what I thought about that narrative was so dramatic that I didn’t dare tell anybody. So I always kept that to myself. 

But now, so much time has gone by that I thought, Okay, this photograph is a miracle. I would never be able to make this again. It was where I was standing, what was going on, the fog, the color, the structure. My favorite part about the picture is the right bottom corner, where there is a square of grass that absolutely fascinates me, and it is a fascination to me because it is a phenomenon that can happen only in the medium of photography, I think. And I’m not going to go more into that, I just want you all to go back to that picture and see if you think I’m crazy and why I was so overwhelmed by that little patch of green grass.

I did think that the photograph seemed like the end of the world. It looked like something that might have come out of a movie like Titanic.

SB: [Laughs]

TB: Or Force Majeure. And the color and the background that I love so much—the fog and the scale and the fine line between what a little, tiny thirty-five-millimeter negative can capture from a photographer that had no idea what they were doing. I mean, it’s just a miracle that those little people in the background and the cars are in focus. And the stuff that’s happening on the left that happens to be on the back of the book—that, to me, is another fabulous picture in itself. I could go on and on. That’s enough about that picture that I love to death.

SB: There are two other pictures, both from 1977, “The Suits” and “The Twins,” that I wanted to bring up that are also an interesting pair, and also fascinating on their own.

TB: Well, now I kind of think, Oh God, those are so square and they’re so perfect and they’re so pasty-white and clean. But what I was thinking about was not only the clothes that people wore on the East Coast. And this was before Ralph Lauren—I always like to point that out. [Editor’s note: The Ralph Lauren brand was founded in 1963, and by the early ’70s it had released full lines of men’s and women’s shirts.] 

SB: A name that, unfortunately, has become all too synonymous with people writing about your work.

TB: Well, that makes sense. But I just want to point out that this is before Ralph Lauren. But it had to do with the way that I dressed, the way my ex-husband dressed—and the people we met in Sun Valley just pointed it out, because no matter how much we tried to look like them, we somehow would look East Coast. And so not only the clothes that people wore—for instance, the seersucker suit that you would never see on the West Coast, or at least in Sun Valley—but the fact that someone’s wearing a tie and a shirt.

But also, more than that, the gestures of the hand in the pocket, the way someone holds a cigarette—that, I think, is handed down from generation to generation: imitating subconsciously how your father stood, how your father held his hand. And then also the portraiture that’s been handed down generation to generation, through generations, whether it’s some young child has looked at the photographs on the tables of their parents and subconsciously imitated what their great-grandfather was doing or wearing.

So those pictures all come from that. And the way that you dress your twins alike, and maybe Spencer knows about that. [Laughter]

SB: I loved seeing, in the exhibition, this contrast between your lives, like the Watch Hill life, the Sun Valley life, the New York life, and there’s this print, “Women on Fifth,” from 1976, and then “Hot Tub,” from 1979, and they’re presented—I think it was next to each other or near each other. It just shows this contrast. And I was hoping you might speak to photographing in these three places and how different the experiences were between them.

“Women on Fifth” (1976) by Tina Barney. (Courtesy the artist and Kasmin, New York)

TB: I didn’t think about that while I was photographing them. I think that when we would come back to New York for Christmas—I think that’s when “Women on Fifth” was taken—that New York City is so much my home. That was such a very traditional, typical scene, so that I would automatically photograph it. And the “Hot Tub” scene really was one of those situations. I mean, we would go to hot tubs and people would take their clothes off so often that it was like, Oh, ho-hum. It was no big deal. But it was, again, one of those situations where people would be together, which I long for because I needed subject matter. And I think that the fact that it was a hot tub and the people didn’t have their clothes on was just so normal at that point. It wasn’t when we first got there. We were pretty shocked, but it was so normal it was like, Okay, let’s just try it again. Try another photograph.

SB: Let’s end on “Amy, Phil, and Brian,” from 1980. This is a photograph you’ve spoken about at length, but it’s so beautifully staged. It’s the swimming-pool scene. I was hoping you might just speak to the time you spent making that picture and directing the people in that picture, which is an interesting element of it.

TB: Are you asking me how much time I took to take that picture?

SB: [Laughs] No, no. Not how much time.

“Amy, Phil and Brian” (1980) by Tina Barney. (Courtesy the artist and Kasmin, New York)

TB: Do you know what a one hundred twenty-fifth of a second is? 

SB: Not how much time, but no, the time spent setting it up and how you visualized that striking scene.

TB: Well, it wasn’t like that. I was taking probably quite a few random, pretty casual pictures. And then it wasn’t that I was thinking hard about it, believe me. But it was basically, you know how kids are insanely running around a pool, jumping, crashing, just saying, “Hey, Phil hold still there. Amy, you sit up there. Brian, you stay there.” It was like that. I mean, it was boom, boom, boom. That’s all. Very quick, very fast.

I rarely took a very long time to direct people. No matter what picture you’re thinking about, all the pictures you’re thinking about, any picture I’ve ever done, it’s boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, like that. It’s fast.

SB: I now can imagine you on a fashion shoot.

TB: Very fast. And then I have to wait for the other people. 

SB: [Laughs]

TB: But let me just think about that. Actually, at that time, I did quite a few pictures that were very sterile like that, very structured—something down the middle, something on each side, and they’re just all in the garbage can because I knew that they were boring. So I kept that one, just because it was maybe more interesting than the other ones, but it took a long time. It had to do with the technical part of, you need more light to have speed, of having someone move and putting the camera on a tripod. I mentioned that eventually I put my camera on a tripod to slow things down. So, anyway, that one sort of got saved—

SB: Made the cut.

TB: Yeah, made the cut.

SB: So to finish, you dedicate the book to Bob, as in Bob Liebreich, who you mentioned, an architect, your late partner, who I was lucky enough to meet. And I was hoping you might just speak a little bit about him here, share who he was and what it means to you to dedicate the book to him.

TB: Wow. Well, I met Bob because he was our architect when I had just had Phil. Phil was born in 1969, so let’s say 1968. We met him through the interior decorators that were friends of my mother’s—that my mother worked with, and then who helped us. And we lived in the inn that my ex-husband grew up in, and that is now the oldest house in Watch Hill, a 1778 house. Bob came in and totally gutted the entire middle of the house. And I think I was so young and so out of it, and dealing with my kids, that I had no idea that he was going to gut the whole middle of the house out until it actually happened. There’s a skylight going down the middle of the house and a couple of other things. The house is very much also kept in the way it was from 1778.

So, he was our architect. We then moved to Sun Valley; I never saw him again. And in 1991, I think, I was asked to do a project at the Whitney Museum, and I was doing a lecture. At the end of the lecture, this white-haired man came up and introduced himself, and Bob had black hair when I [first] met him and I didn’t recognize him. I was divorced at that time, in 1990, when I re-met him again, and we started going out then. We stayed together until he died, last year. He would’ve been 90 years old a couple of weeks after he died.

SB: An interesting thing I found out in researching for this interview was that he was actually once your photography assistant.

TB: Oh, well, I mean, can you still hear the screaming? 

SB: [Laughs]

TB: When we went to the [American] Academy in Rome the first year, I didn’t have an assistant. So he helped me set up the lights for some of the most important pictures I’ve ever made. But boy, there was a lot of screaming, because he kept on arguing with me. But he did. He survived, and he did help me, yeah. Good for you to remember…. Maybe I said that at some point.

SB: To close this out, is there a picture you haven’t taken yet that you’ve always wanted to take? How do you think about where you’re at in this rich body of work you’ve built?

TB: Well, I am making a new body of work now with my eight-by-ten, and they’re still lifes without people. I’m really loving it because I can take much more time than I’ve ever taken before. And I think that the speed in which I talk about photographing has to do with not wanting to bother people and not wanting to annoy them by keeping them too long. So now I don’t have to do that. That’s exciting me. I guess you could say they’re almost abstract. So, if I’m pleased with those, which I’m pretty strict with myself, that will be exciting to go on with that. I think that there are things that I would like to do. And then, I mean, I’m still interested in filmmaking and video, which are hell to work with, but there are things still out there.

SB: Tina, thank you so much. 

TB: Well, thank you. 

SB: This was a pleasure.

TB: Thank you.


This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on March 9, 2023. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. The episode was produced by Emily Jiang, Ramon Broza, and Johnny Simon. Illustration by Diego Mallo based on a self-portrait by Tina Barney.