My heart belongs to Tina Barney. It’s not only because she’s an exceptional and brilliant photographer. LadyKflo adoration flows through many Tina channels. Barney takes pictures of people in their comfort zones – a passionate interest I share. But the biggest reason I love Tina Barney – she’s a teacher. Not technically, of course. It’s just my experience with her documentary and the DVD commentary she voiced on it.
Prefer listening to reading? Check out the audio version below.
Ms. Barney offers such generous insight about her work. It illuminates all photography – not just her pieces. Her voice-over on Social Studies taught me what makes an exceptional photograph. In fact, before I listened to it, I knew very little about how to really see a photo. Mostly I just shrugged, loved what I loved, and assumed it was because of elements like symmetry.
Photography by Tina Barney
But photography’s much more complex. It’s about how the eye works. We look at things a certain way. There’s a reason we see deeply into some pictures and merely glance at others. I knew this in my gut without knowing why. It’s like when you pour all the puzzle pieces out of the box. You know they go together – just not how. That understanding part takes unpacking.
Luckily for me, Tina Barney explains much of this using her own work on the Social Studies DVD commentary. Her pictures are extraordinary. All the photos in this post are hers, for example. But the picture below is one my favorites. Spotlight’s on Tina’s sister, Jill, here in Picasso at My Sister’s Wedding Party. In fact, Barney features Jill in many photos. She makes a compelling, often even riveting, subject. It’s partly Jill’s beauty but even more her spontaneity.
Barney talks in the commentary about this moment behind the scenes at her sister’s wedding. It was an unexpected capture. Tina was aiming the camera. But she didn’t know Jill was going to stand. That lucky click of the shutter captured this work of art. To the untrained eye, it may seem unclear what makes it so spectacular. But with the help of her commentary, I see it now. The frame is a bit different here from the original. I’ve cropped it for website purposes. But even cropped, the picture leads your eye around the subjects in the frame. It forces you to see and thus think about what’s happening here. You can’t help but notice the objects, paintings, and people. It’s telling a story of this moment in time. That’s the essence of photography as an art form. One small frame can tell a whole story.
Humans in Their Natural Habitat
I loved Barney’s work long before I saw Social Studies. Her art and photography books are detail-packed wonderlands. I own several, as you can see in my post about the best art and photography books. When I bought my first Tina Barney book, I didn’t know why the photos in them were so good. I only knew they held my attention. At first it was about beauty. After all, Tina’s photos are gorgeous. But the elite lives of her subjects also hold intrinsic intrigue. It’s fascinating to see inside people’s homes. When those homes are castles and aristocratic penthouses, that allure increases.
Tina Barney captures humans in their natural habitat. That attracted me right away. In fact, the first time I saw her work was in the Museum of Modern Art. The photo (The Skier – at the top of this page) felt intimate. At the same time I could sense distance between the people portrayed. It was a push and pull, all in one photo. Part of that effect resulted from the simplicity of her subject matter. Her portraits are all within her social circle – friends of friends. It’s an elite class of people. So, these are often aristocrat portraits. Similarities link how they dress and decorate. This creates a repeating theme among Barney’s portraits. With few exceptions, subjects match their surroundings. It’s Tina Barney brand camouflage – always classy and uncanny.
In her documentary someone asks Barney if she’d photograph someone outside her circle. Tina doesn’t think so. It wouldn’t be as insightful or real a project to do so, she seems to say. I’m paraphrasing. But the point of her work isn’t about manufacturing portraits. It’s about true connections between people. That’s a genuine factor for Tina Barney. It comes through in her pictures. She understands these people, their objects, and homes. It makes a difference that shows through the work. When it comes to photography, connections like these make a picture a work of art. A photographer’s connection to their subject help us see through the artist’s eyes. This is how art works and why it can hold us spellbound.