Interview #76: Allison Barnes
CUS: How did you get into photography?
Allison Barnes: I cannot remember exactly how...My father gave me my first film camera and encouraged me to make pictures. He would take me on field trips to The Met and into downtown New York City, so I had early exposure to art and culture. But really, I was always around it, especially in the sense of documenting family life. My grandfather kept a daily written diary for thirty years; he also kept annual photo albums since the 1950s. One album per year, with the prints arranged chronologically. I have only recently found my true appreciation for those albums. Each image is titled with names, dates, locations, and usually with a bit of humor. Some captions are simply, “Rose,” or “Catch of the Day,” or my favorite, “Nobody we know, just a picture.” I got my desire to collect and record from my grandfather, or what my aunt calls “the diary gene.” For me, photography came out of that curiosity I have for objects and places, and the ways in which we preserve place. I think that is why I have always been drawn to landscapes and still lifes.
CUS: Did you study, or are you studying, photography? If not, how did you learn?
AB: Aside from taking photography courses in high school, I also attended classes at the School of Visual Arts when I was around seventeen years old. I then went on to get my B.F.A. at SVA and my M.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design, both degrees with an emphasis on photography. I feel lucky to have been introduced to photography when darkrooms were still prevalent in public schools or even universities. I imagine I would not be as entranced by the art if I were a teenager today…but who knows.
CUS: How did studying art at a post-secondary institution have an affect on your work?
AB: Doing my undergrad at SVA was an amazing experience. It was during that time that my love of printing and for the print became an important part of my practice. I was fortunate to work with great black and white photographers and incredible minds, all of whom encouraged me to pursue the art of printing, whether that was through the darkroom, a digital printer, or bookmaking. I also started shooting with an 8x10 camera then. Graduate school, however, allowed me to focus more on the ways I wanted to use the print. It also opened me to various processes that I hadn’t considered before. My work now includes a range of prints such as cyanotype, gelatin silver, platinum/palladium and various digital outputs. I also became more interested in the contact print while I was a graduate student. Before then I was usually enlarging my prints to at least 20x24” for the detail, but I found a great deal of satisfaction in the simplicity of the 8x10” contact; the direct imprint or the index. I still contact print pretty regularly and only enlarge an image when I find it necessary. That being said, I recently made an 8x10 foot mural-sized print for Richard Williamson’s, Good Times Waiting Room.
CUS: Tell us a little about where you live. How does your city/country/location have an affect on your photography?
AB: I currently live in Chicago, but I like to make work anywhere or whenever I am inspired. Several images from Neither For Me Honey Nor the Honey Bee were taken in my current house, which was built in 1906 and is completely covered in ivy during the summer months. I moved into this space because I knew I could make a lot of work in it. It has been good to me in that sense. The light changes in beautiful ways throughout the year and provides me with many opportunities to create and contemplate. My lab for darkroom printing and publishing is also housed in this space. In addition, I bring my camera whenever I travel. I like introducing new spaces and landscapes into my images. Honey Bee features locations in California, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico. If the occasion arises, if I see something or feel something then I pursue it. But it was in this current house that I was truly given the opportunity to consider my own living space and to create work so freely.
CUS: Tell us about your photographic process.
AB: I definitely consider myself a printer over a photographer, though I create and use my own images 100% of the time. I consider my process an act of collecting. I am always working on something, so sometimes I am shooting at home, always when I am around family, when I am traveling cross-country, or when I am hiking. I often seek things out as well, or I will find out about something and then return to make some plates. Various days consist of either printing, writing, shooting or reading, probably in that order of significance.
CUS: What did you have for breakfast this morning?
AB: Toast with raw clover honey (from New Jersey)
CUS: Who are the individuals in your photographs?
AB: Most figures are my own, or part of me. Some are of my partner, Richard, others are of my mother and certain extended family or close friends. I have a collection of images that are of hands, whether they are my own or someone else’s. I really like hands – I make a strong connection between them and photographs, especially between the imprint and the contact print.
CUS: What makes a good image?
AB: I don’t think there is a formula for that. Images are everywhere, but I am usually drawn to the ones that make me think beyond the frame – I have these experiences with photographs, drawings, paintings, films, etc. I also have these experiences with spaces that are familiar to me. I enjoy having that “familiar” feeling from an image.
CUS: Where do you draw inspiration from? What is the motivation behind your image-making?
AB: I am pulling from various things at all times, depending on the books I am reading, the films I am watching or the spaces in which I am living or visiting. I am motivated by my need to explore Place and the relationships that we make in them; especially with the objects we collect. Topophilia is a central element to my practice that is always prodding me to go further.
CUS: Tell us about the locations in your photographs.
AB: The places that I tend to photograph are usually those that I have spent considerable time in. A lot of these images were made in my homes, both current and past, but in a sense, all of the images in Honey Bee are about home, even if some are not of my own. Sometimes my home is a tent in the woods or a trailer on a friend’s plot of land. Specificity is not so important to me since I make photographs that speak more about the landscape of identity and personal experience. I hope that the viewer is able to place the images within their own narrative and to give them their own locations.
CUS: What can you tell us about your project "Neither For Me Honey Nor the Honey Bee"?
AB: This project is an on-going series about the importance of Space and Place and the ways in which we embody them, as well as the ways they embody us. Overall, the work is an assemblage of my research on Topophilia and the phenomenon of what makes up our most intimate landscapes. Each installment and publication is its own iteration of the series that reveals various components. At this point there has been a book, a gelatin silver postcard set, a catalogue and a series of contact prints, as well as enlarged darkroom prints, all of which are limited edition sets. Honey Bee is about more than the image, hence why I use all of these formats. I can tell you a little about the title, which is a fragmented poem by Ancient Greek poet Sappho, which means wishing for good unmixed with evil, but it also has much to do with honeybees, which often make an appearance in the project and the writings that surround it.
CUS: Do you believe that with the rise of digital photography the phrase “everyone can be a photographer” is true?
AB: With the rise of digital photography everyone can make images, but a photograph is a very specific thing. A photograph is a print, but its image can be reproduced. Even with the popularity of digital and web-based images, I do think that artists are using them in really great ways that have advanced the conversations within and around photography. But a true photographer is someone who is dedicated to the art and is someone who is constantly searching for and thinking about images.
CUS: What are your thoughts on digital vs. film photography; photography and the Internet? (For example, mass amounts of images being uploaded every day via sites such as Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram…)
AB: As for Instagram, I love it. I use it as a way to share new ideas and fleeting moments, which in a way is like a visual diary, not too different from those my grandfather kept. I also think that Instagram is an interesting way for fine-art photographers to stay in contact with one another, to share inspiration and to spread information. It is a wonderful promotional tool as well, and I even use it to sketch, but as for fine-art image making…I am not sure about that yet.
CUS: How do you differentiate “art” photography and “non-art” photography?
AB: Fine art prints embody materials and images that are considered, have intent, and come from a place that goes beyond a simple moment that was captured and then printed or uploaded. Not to say that the people who are uploading those images are not artists, but a finely printed photograph certainly stands out from others. That being said, I think it is easy to feel something towards any kind of image that we encounter.. It really is all subjective.
CUS: Do you think that the Internet (as opposed to a gallery or any other art institution) is a legitimate place to showcase photographic work or do photographs have to be seen in “the flesh” to be fully appreciated and experienced?
AB: As a printer, I say that certain works need to be seen in person to really see the image, its surface and its relationship with the space in which it is being shown. They are in fact objects, which need to be experienced to know their full effect. But I think that the representation of them in online galleries and web publications is a fantastic way to share projects with a wider audience. Many of us would not have careers if it weren’t for the Internet. Also, many images are fully realized when they are printed on the pages of books, so why not online? I am pro-publication, whichever form that may be.
CUS: What are your plans for the summer?
AB: I am printing for some shows that will take place over the season and I have a couple book projects that Great Northern Labs will be publishing. Last summer I was all over the place, so I am happy that I will have the opportunity to enjoy what Chicago has to offer this year. I did a residency at Homestead National Monument last spring where I was printing from the Higgins Glass Plate Negative Collection and I am still working through the images and prints that I made while there. I will be exhibiting Neither For Me Honey Nor the Honey Bee at the Freedom Gallery in Frenchtown, NJ, (opening in late June) which is really exciting for me because it will be the first time that my work will shown in my home state, let alone the very county that I grew up in. It will be a homecoming in way, both for me and for some of the photographs. Otherwise, I will be spending my summer tending to plants since I also work at a greenhouse and herb yard near my home.
CUS: Your favourite photographer?
AB: Off the top of my head…Barbara Bosworth, Linda Connor, Walker Evans, Peter Fischli & David Weiss, David Hilliard, Laura McPhee. It also depends on what I am looking at and thinking about. I recently bought James Welling’s book Diary/Landscape, and that is at the top of my list right now. I am also enjoying Raymond Meeks’ work at the moment.
CUS: If you could collaborate with anyone who would it be?
AB: A magical apiarist who can teach me her ways.
CUS: Your dream equipment?
AB: I shoot with a Chamonix 8x10 and I print on an Arista 8x10 enlarger. Dream equipment, check!
CUS: Your dream location to shoot?
AB: Any place where I can be fully present in the moment.
CUS: What is the biggest challenge you face with your work?
AB: Being an analog printer / publisher during the digital revolution will always be a challenge, but one worth working through.
CUS: What was the last thing you dreamt about?
AB: Always dreaming.
CUS: What are some of your favourite books and films?
AB: “Punch Drunk Love,” “Boogie Nights” or anything by P.T. Anderson, or anything by Robert Altman, especially “The Long Goodbye”, “Shortcuts”, and “3 Women.” I love the way those directors use sound, space and editing. Their films are usually about relationships in and with a specific landscape. Also, “Interiors” by Woody Allen, and “Wild At Heart” by David Lynch. For books, I love so many. “River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West,” by Rebecca Solnit is wonderful. Her way with words in all of her books is inspiring, as is her devotion to words and the world-at-large. “A Language Older Than Words,” by Derrick Jensen, “The Poetics of Space,” by Gaston Bachelard, “If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho” translated by Anne Carson. My favorite author is W.G. Sebald – a writer whom I refer to often. I most recently finished “Oranges” by John McPhee, and am currently reading “Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee” by Hattie Ellis.
CUS: If you could photograph any person (past or present) who would you choose and why?
AB: Joe Strummer, without a doubt. What a babe… But seriously, I find him really inspiring as a model of being true to one’s self. Also, The Clash is my favorite band, so why not? Oh, and Paul Newman circa 1967-1971…what a babe.
CUS: What advice would you give to your fellow photographers?
AB: It is all worth photographing.
CUS: Last but not least, what would you like to ask the next interviewee?
AB: What are the five nearest objects to you right now?