A conversation with Elizabeth Avedon
“A curator, writing about my work, described the archaeological process as akin to the autopsy, in that it is simultaneously revealing and destructive of its object of study. I like the idea in my work of coming from a place that is both ambiguous and contradictory at the same time.” – Richard Barnes
Elizabeth Avedon: I'm curious to know how you got started in photography. What were your first experiences?
Richard Barnes: I came to photography through printmaking. I was a fine art major at the University of California at Berkeley in the mid 1970s and wanted to incorporate photographic elements into my prints. I was aware of artists like Robert Heinecken and John Baldessari in L.A. doing interesting work combining photography with painting and silkscreen and other media. I also was intrigued by the conceptual nature of their work. The art department at Berkeley, however, did not offer any courses in photography and after searching around I realized the only department that did, was in the Journalism school. So I transferred out and became the only photojournalist in the journalism department.
This led me down the road to doing editorial photography, working first for the campus newspaper (which actually paid) and later I got a job working as a staff photographer for the Berkeley Gazette/Richmond Independent, which as a union job, paid great for someone just out of college. Photojournalism was a long way from the work I’d admired by artists and photographers who had been my influences in my years at university and part of me always hearkened back to that experience of when I was doing more conceptual, less journalistic work.
In fact, the other staff photographers would joke that I was the only photojournalist they knew who carried a tripod on his assignments. Not that this qualified me as a fine art photographer, but after a year of riding around in the staff car with a police radio, covering accidents and sticking my camera in the face of people who least wanted me there, I realized I was no Weegee. I was burnt out and quit to preserve my sanity. I headed for Japan, where for the next year and a half I did nothing but teach English and work on my own photographic projects,which were primarily centered around photographing architecture.
I have to say however that the experience of working in Journalism taught me a lot about the importance of access and taking what might seem an ordinary assignment and turning it into something larger and more personal. This early experience working in the trenches of day in, day out assignment work actually prepared me for the commissions I receive today from such publications as the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic.
Elizabeth Avedon: I read in your bio that in 1995 you were commissioned by the NEA to document the renovation of The California Palace of the Legion of Honor as it was discovered the museum had been built upon what was once the largest post-gold rush era cemetery ever excavated.
Richard Barnes: Actually the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco applied for and received an NEA grant to commission me to photograph the excavation for new galleries and the renovation of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, out of which I created the exhibition, Still Rooms & Excavations. This installation examined the role of the Legion of Honor in particular, and by extension all museums and the role they play in curating and preserving the past.
During the initial phase of the renovation it was discovered that the museum was built upon a pre-existing gold rush era cemetery. Hundreds of burials were excavated from beneath its foundations. I worked at the site for 2 years, watching as the museum lavished great care and concern on the collection and the newly renovated building, as the human burials were simply tossed into cardboard boxes and sent away. This caused me to question the role of the Museum in deciding whose past was important and worth saving, and whose was expendable and considered of little or no value. This body of work was the first I did that examines the cultural role of the museum and the practice of collection, curation and display. Since then this has been a key theme in all my work. A selection of images from Still Rooms & Excavations opened in January 2010, at San Francisco Camerawork in an exhibition titled The Future Lasts Forever.
Elizabeth Avedon: How pivotal was the National Endowment for the Arts commission to the evolution of your future work (or future voice) as an artist? Hypothetically would your work have taken a different path if you had not won a grant for that project?
Richard Barnes: Well, I actually was only ever an NEA “alternate”. Which means somebody has to die or be accused of some heinous crime like pouring chocolate on themselves while appearing nude in Playboy, before I’d be able to take their place. That did not happen in the only year I applied. The following year they ended the NEA grant to individual artists. Later however, I applied forand received the Rome Prize (2006) and in 2009 was awarded the Sidman Fellowship for the Arts from the Institute for the Humanities at the University of Michigan.
I can’t say enough about how important it was for me to have received these fellowships. They provided the opportunity of concentrated time and support, which was invaluable. Although I did not receive an NEA for the work I did at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, I doubt I would have been commissioned to photograph the excavation of the Palace of the Legion of Honor had the museum not applied for and received the grant.
Elizabeth Avedon: How would you describe your work in Animal Logic?
Richard Barnes: First, a little history. Animal Logic evolved over the past decade and grows out of work first started in the early 1990s when I worked as the excavation photographer at a place called Abydos, Egypt. I had traveled to Egypt with a former professor of mine who had worked there in the 1960s. He was a wonderful guide to the history and culture of the Middle East and I resolved that I would return as soon as I could find a way back. It took four years until I landed a position as the photographer with archaeologists on the Joint Yale/University of Pennsylvania excavations at Abydos.
My interest in archaeology is two-fold. On the one hand I have long been interested in the layering of history and memory which is visually expressed through stratigraphy; the building up over time of layers of sediment containing the artifacts and refuge of cultures which have risen and fallen over thousands of years. Archaeological practice has been used both as metaphor and myth by many artists who inspire me, such as Michael Heizer, and Anselm Kiefer and in some cases as direct practice, as in the work of Mark Dion. I also enjoy working with scientists and experts from disciplines outside of my own field. I have learned much over the past 15 years by associating not only with archaeologists but also with anthropologists, ornithologists, taxidermists and most recently, paleontologists.
It was at Abydos that I photographed my first animal mummy. A dog, probably someone’s pet, no doubt buried with it’s master and destined to spend eternity in loyal service to him in the afterlife. That is until we came on the scene and uncovered them some 3,000 years after they’d been buried originally.
After a few field seasons in Egypt, I began to turn my attention to the places where the objects we were extracting from the ground were ultimately interred. Working first in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, I later became interested in how museum collections develop, specifically in the way they express our relationship to the natural world and our place, or the human presence within it. I then started to look at the evolution of the natural history museum as an embodiment of the process of collection, curation and display. These enquiries formed the basis for my book and exhibition, Animal Logic.
Elizabeth Avedon: How did you arrange to work behind the scenes in the museums in these photographs?
Richard Barnes: Over the years I have photographed in numerous museums and collecting institutions, therefore it’s not difficult for me to figure out who to contact and more often than not, obtain access to photograph. Natural history museums are much more open to inviting artists in to work with their collections than let’s say a modern art museum. I have also done photography for several books on various art museums and that makes it easier, as I have a portfolio I can present to them. That’s not to say I haven’t been shut down on occasion. The English are particularly difficult to work with and the French just the opposite. There is this wonderful spirit in France; some might even call it quaint, whereby the artist, based solely on an interest in doing research, is granted access. It was great to work over there.
Elizabeth Avedon: Are the photographs in your Animal Logic series meant to be carefully composed?
Richard Barnes: The composition of my images comes from my response to the order and attention to detail that the archaeologists, curators and technicians bring to a given subject. Of course I, as the photographer, ultimately compose the scene to express the idea I want to convey. There are images, such as the suspended giraffe in Animal Logic that I just happened upon. The technicians doing the removal were hovering around trying to figure out the best way to get the giraffe out the door. I first photographed it with all of them hoisting it in the air and measuring the doorway, etc., then I asked if they might give me a few minutes with it without anyone around. They decided it was good time to take coffee break and left me with this powerful, if forlorn scene. Ultimately the single image with the giraffe alone and suspended turned out to be the stronger.
Elizabeth Avedon: How much research did you do prior to approaching the dioramas?
Richard Barnes: I look for dioramas and natural history museums for that matter, which are undergoing renovation. I would find out from curators and exhibition designers which museums they knew of that were upgrading their dioramas, or in some cases getting rid of them all together and contact them. It’s a sad fact but many, thankfully not all, of the museum professionals I talked to were embarrassed by the fact they had these moldering dioramas within their domain. They represent a different era for many institutions and either required substantial “upgrading” or being replaced all together. They certainly had good reasons, not the least of which is that the early dioramas and the animals within were made with lot’s of questionable materials and chemicals know to be toxic to humans. I often felt like I was an emissary from another century documenting these “ancient” theatrical set pieces for posterity.
Elizabeth Avedon: What historical implications do you feel this body of work possesses?
Richard Barnes: As far as the historical dimension of this work I personally have always been interested in the theatre and what happens behind the scene or in the wings during a performance. The Dresser and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead are two of my favorite plays. In the theatre, the audience enters into this implicit bargain with the actors, director and set designer, in which they are asked to “suspend their sense of disbelieve”, for the duration of the performance. It can be a very powerful experience, especially if it is well executed. It is this idea of “suspending disbelief” that one is also asked to do in front of a diorama.
Louis Daguerre understood the power of illusion and the theatre and invented the first primitive diorama in 1822, long before he developed what would be come know as the Daguerreotype. The first Diorama I photographed was at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It just kind of clicked for me when I chanced upon a diorama that was being renovated. There had been a fire and this particular diorama suffered smoke damage and when I came through I was struck by this bizarre tableau of the animals covered in plastic and these tools spread all around the floor of what was supposed to be the savanna. But what I found most interesting was this man on a scaffold painting the clouds in the sky over the scene. It was this insertion of the living human element in what I had always considered to be the pretty static set piece of the diorama that intrigued me. It was as if the theatrical space of the diorama had been broken down and that this seemingly impermeable membrane between the viewer and viewed, the living and the dead, was made permeable and instead of the animals, the construction workers and backdrop painters took center stage.
Elizabeth Avedon: Is your work collaborative or do you work resolutely by yourself?
Richard Barnes: I enjoy working collaboratively. While in Rome, I entered into what was perhaps the most fruitful collaboration of my career to date. I produced Murmur with Alex Schweder, an architect and video artist, and Charles Mason, a composer. Murmur forms another chapter in my book and is an investigation into the flocks of starlings which every winter fill the evening sky over Rome. No one is quite sure why the starlings stopover in Italy but before roosting for the night, they converge on the city from the countryside in flocks numbering in the hundred of thousands. This would be impressive enough in it’s own right, but they also do these incredible aerial displays that resemble drawings or computer animation written large overhead. The effect is awe-inspiring and although the Romans detest this “invasion of the starlings” each winter we as artists were inspired to create an installation. It consists of a - projector video piece, still photography and a 3-part sound composition that features the call or “murmuration” as its known, of the starling. First exhibited in Rome, it is now the centerpiece of my exhibition, also titled, Animal Logic, which showed at the Cranbrook Museum of Art and the Cranbrook Institute of Science in 2009.
Elizabeth Avedon: There is a surreal quality to these images. Do you regard yourself as a Surrealist or feel an affinity with the notion of the images as a kind of dream?
Richard Barnes: I certainly have an affinity for surrealist imagery. I don’t see how it can be avoided as it’s so ubiquitous in our time, from movies and books to advertising. What sets my work apart is that it grows out of a documentary tradition and from this straight ahead or forensic approach I subvert the document through either juxtaposition or de-contextualization of an object from its surroundings, thereby rendering it hyper-real. I believe real life is strange and surreal enough if one looks a little longer and harder than to attempt to make something surreal on purpose, which usually comes off as contrived. As far as my images conjuring up the realm of a dream reality in someone, I would take this as an indication that they are working.
Elizabeth Avedon has a rich history in Photography, collaborating with Museums, Publishing Houses, Galleries and Artists as an Independent Photo and Design Professional. She’s received recognition for her Curatorial work and Exhibition Design in Museums across the country and for numerous Publishing Projects. She is a regular contributor to La Lettre de la Photographie, as well as working as a Curatorial Consultant and Book + Exhibition Designer, and committed to supporting the Photography Community through her blog, ElizabethAvedon.Blogspot.com
Richard Barnes divides his time between commissioned work and personal projects. He has had numerous exhibitions in this country and abroad including solo shows at the Carnegie Museum of Art, The Carpenter Center at Harvard University and the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego, among others. He was the recipient of the Rome Prize in 2005/06 and his photographs from Rome formed the basis for his book and installation titled Animal Logic. His body of work on the Unabomber cabin was featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial and was shown recently in the exhibition, Crime Unseen at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago. His photographs are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco MOMA and the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts, among others. He works on assignment for such publications as the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic and the New Yorker.
Posted on Saturday, October 22, 2011.
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