‘The Europeans’ on display at WCMA

Internationally renowned photographer Tina Barney spoke in Brooks-Rogers Recital Hall last Thursday in a talk titled “People, Places and Things.” The lecture was arranged in accordance with the photography exhibition at the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), Beyond the Familiar: Photography and the Construction of Community.

The photographs featured in the exhibition are selections from Barney’s project, The Europeans (Steidl/Barbican Art Gallery, 2005), a book of 83 portraits of aristocratic Europeans taken between 1996 and 2004. Before The Europeans had culminated in an eight-year project, Barney was in Rome as a visiting artist at the American Academy. From mostly casual but some formal introductions, Barney made repeated trips to England, France, Italy, Austria, Spain and Germany photographing the wealthy elite and their families using her 4 x 5 Toyo field camera and a single 180 lens. While the portraits on the pages of The Europeans measure only 7 x 9 inches, Barney’s C-prints run nearly a life-size 48 x 60 inches, as exemplified in the six photos on display at the WCMA.

Barney spoke of her fairly simple transition as an outsider into the formal lives of the privileged Europeans. “I always say going outside of things I know becomes journalism or reportage,” Barney said. “Not that I know the lives of the Europeans I photographed, but at least they have some connection with what I’ve known growing up.”

Barney revealed that her ease of interaction with such people was assisted by her upbringing and privileged life. Barney was born in 1945 into a prominent New York City family. Robert Lehman, her grandfather, was a founder of Lehman Brothers investment banking firm and a major art collector whose treasures are now housed in a wing of their own at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Barney’s brother, who is in a photograph with a curator of the Metropolitan inside the painting galleries, is a trustee of the museum.

Although she had collected photography at the insistence of photographer and curator John Szarkowski of the Museum of Modern Art, Barney found her true passion after her family moved to Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1975 and when she began studying photography at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Humanities. Barney began photographing friends and family in black and white with a handheld 35mm camera. Barney describes her initial use of color photography in 1979 as dubious, but she became enamored with color as a means to express pattern and repetition. Three years later, Szarkowski acquired one of Barney’s photographs for the MoMA collection and her star has been rising ever since. However, Barney described the acquisition as more of a casual insistence of “sending my photographs to MoMA to see if they would buy them.”

The question of class and privilege in reference to the average viewers of Barney’s works and their relationship to them was the elephant in the lecture hall. Replying to a question about association and the ability for an average person to connect to the work as the artist has, Barney insisted that class is not her subject. Yet by photographing her family and friends, and now European friends of friends, she inevitably portrays people of some wealth and station.

After The Europeans, Barney has since then photographed the Wooster Group theater company in New York City and Chinese theater in Shanghai, among others. Barney is currently working on a project that is personally described as outside of her comfort zone by documenting the working lives of coal mine and steel workers in her residence of Watch Hill, R.I.