Tina Barney, Small Towns @Janet Borden

JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the divided gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic color prints, made between 2005 and 2011. The prints come in two sizes: 30×40 (or reverse) in editions of 5, and 48×60 (or reverse) in editions of 10; a couple of images have been printed even larger (70×88) and these prints are “included” in the 48×60 edition. A 6:55 minute video, entitled Tina Barney, Small Towns, runs on a monitor in the back room. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: Tina Barney’s photographs are nearly always built on small human nuances. Her pictures follow gestures, highlight overlooked details, chart invisible relationships and explore hidden emotional landscapes. At first glance, her pictures can seem offhand, but immersion in the details generally opens up something unexpected, where a knowing stare, the style of a piece of clothing, the distance between people, and the presence of a house all become the evidence of subtle but discernible social patterns.

While most of Barney’s previous photographs have centered on her intimate family and friends, her newest pictures find her wandering through nearby small towns, watching parades and historical reenactments, visiting farms, and interacting with strangers. Each scene tells the story of how we value traditions and customs, how we embrace small rituals that give our lives structure and meaning, and how we both present ourselves and see each other. Apparel and attire offer important clues: the howling wolf t-shirt and checkerboard skinny pants of a teenage bike rider, the standard issue red polo shirt and denim skirt of a bored waitress, the white shirt and black tie (collar unbuttoned) of a 4H kid showing off a rooster, and the slightly too long in the arms uniform of a marching band trumpeter waiting under a tree. Costumes are also a reminder of our shared history: the puffed out skirts and modest bonnets of young girls in a colonial reenactment, the tricorn hat and red, white, and blue coat of a serious boy from a fife and drum band standing stock still in a parking lot puddle, and the oversized striped bow and black silk parasol of a witchy Victorian woman standing in front of a cornfield. The best images in the show take these visual cues and surround them with even more elaborate found compositions: a young woman tries on a bridal dress, flanked by a triangle of blond flower girls, a tower of shoes, and a judgmental mother reflected in the mirror, and a grimacing farm kid does shoveling chores, his straight arms angling one way, the tilt of the falling down shed behind him going the other.

Even though Barney likely works fast with her large format camera, these pictures have just enough of a pause in them to let the scenes settle and come to rest. Her light touch “do what you were doing” staging ensures that her wall-sized tableaux stay firmly in the realm of reality, rather than veering off into overly contrived fiction. It is this attentive believability that makes the pictures successful for me; her photographs gently burrow into the in-between spaces in her subjects’ lives, uncovering the coded details that help explain who they are.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced as follows. The 30×40 prints are $20000 each, while the 48×60/70×88 prints are $30000 each. Barney’s work is remarkably absent from the secondary markets; very few prints have come up at auction in recent years. Prices have ranged from $3000 to $42000, but these data points may not be entirely representative of the real value of her work. As a result, gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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One comment

  1. Anonymous /

    Looks like a forgettable New York Times Magazine story. I usually love Tina Barney's work.

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