Tina Barney photographs what she knows; born to a wealthy New York family, Barney’s work focuses on elite Northeasterners. Her images are vast, scaled like history paintings, but her subjects are intimate, and feel accessible. Barney shoots with a large format camera, enabling her to precisely record minute details of her subjects’ appearance and environments. These details are critical to her work; even as her subjects turn away from the camera, Barney creates legible portraits from their possessions and postures.
The Westwater Family looks like an image captured before the “real” photograph was taken. The loose arrangement of figures, lack of interaction among participants, and seeming ignorance of the photographer’s presence suggest a lack of deliberation. The image is pregnant with possibility. However, this is the final image, and Barney’s relaxed attitude towards her subject is deliberate. This approach strips Barney’s images of voyeurism, because these rooms, persons, and objects are deeply familiar to her, even if they seem exotic to the viewer. Barney’s visual style – specifically, the nearly life-size scale and extraordinary measure of detail in each image – helps the viewer feel present, as if admitted into the spaces and company of her subjects.
In The Westwater Family, Barney captures individual gestures that appear to suggest more complex narratives, complicating the apparent spontaneity of the photograph and hinting that it may not be a fully authentic record. This encourages the viewer to examine the image more closely, trying to make sense of the relationships in the image – between people, between people and objects – and build a story from the gestures and objects Barney has scattered across her visual field. Yet, the viewer is never satisfied; she has been invited into the subject’s space, but is not truly present, not truly part of Barney’s world. Barney’s images simultaneously pulls the viewer into her elite world and keeps her at a distance.