The human gesture is one of the great loves
of my life. - Tina Barney (1)
Tina Barney's large-scale color
photographs of her family and close friends belie, by their very monumental
nature, their seemingly opposite effect: that of the private snapshot
or family photo album. Barney's photographs reveal the intimate gestures
between the people in families - however they come together - who love
and neglect one another in wildly complex ways.
Writing about the complicated nature of family photography, historian
Annette Kuhn notes, "Family photographs are about memory and memories:
that is, they are about stories of a past, shared (both stories and past)
by a group of people that in the moment of sharing produces itself as
a family." (2) Tina Barney creates a family photo album - usually
a private keepsake - that is consumed outside privacy and in the public
arena. Kuhn notes, "Family photographs may affect to show us our
past, but what we do with them - how we use them - is really about today,
not yesterday. These traces of our former lives are pressed into service
in a never-ending process of making, remaking, making sense of, our selves
- now. There can be no last word about my photograph, about any photograph."
Barney notes her own impulse to make, remake, and understand her family,
as Kuhn suggests we are impelled to do. Barney writes, "Is this fear
of the inevitability of that final, drastic loneliness what instigated
this obsessively frantic insistence to mark every living inch of life
so as to not miss one detail? And with a stubbornness that I was born
with, I demand that you take notice, and not look over, and never forget."
(4) Barney's photographs document that which they, and all family photographs,
ultimately aim to prevent: the passing of time and its effects. We come
together, we part, we pass on; but sometimes we return to one another
because of our shared histories. Barney's photographs disclose to us a
partial history of her own familial records.
Tina Barney's impulse to "mark every living inch of life" can
be historically grounded in photography's 19th-century origins. Early
portrait photographers stressed the importance of the photograph as a
moral stabilizer for families and the social fabric, "… family
photographs sustained sentimental ties in a nation of migrants."
(5) These sentimental ties, especially those produced by viewing photographs
of deceased loved ones, enabled families to document their lives as they
happened, and to remember those who had predeceased them, thus forming
a seemingly cohesive "history" on which to build a nation. For
all of their technical sophistication, Barney's photographs are built
on a similar pathos of memory and remembering. As Barney explains, "How
do you try to tell the people you love how much you love them? There is
no way to describe that." (6) That desire is the underlying text
to all of Barney's images.
According to historian Carol Mavor, "Both the photograph and childhood
accept their shape and their poignancy from death. If there were no death,
why would childhood hold its appeal? If there were no death, why would
our desire to photograph and to preserve lost moments be so urgent?"
(7) Tina Barney's photographs of herself with her sister Jill attest to
the poignancy of the photographic moment. Over the years she has photographed
herself with her sister, and her sister with others, countless times.
The photographs become her affirmation of familial love. In Jill and I,
the two sisters are framed, not surprisingly, by domestica. Specifically
in Jill and I - one of the easiest photographs she's ever taken
- Barney demonstrates, through physical proximity and gesture, the bond
between her sister and her. The large green couch bolsters them from behind,
creating a cushion against which they nestle together; note the way in
which Tina's shoulder fits into the curve of Jill's breast. And while
they share a physical intimacy, they seem fixed in a moment of questioning,
as if they examine a shared question for which neither has the answer.
But that is my personal extrapolation. How do we decode this photograph
and what is it, ultimately, evidence of? What is the possibility of this
seemingly private photograph made for the public viewer? In me it produces
an interest in the mysterious relationship between siblings in general,
and between sisters in particular, having none myself. In others it may
evoke memories of siblings, their attendant rivalries and their shared
histories. In still others it may provoke nothing more than an interest
in the formal qualities of the light, color, and composition. The family
photograph, then, resonates throughout a community of memory and information
larger than its own.
What Barney understands when she makes these private photographs public
is that meaning is contingent not only on her own family but on the various
histories that surround the photographic moment itself. In The Bridesmaids
in Pink, the glances and gestures between the girls and the spaces
that exist between them address Barney's affection for the human gesture
and its multiple meanings. The girls in the photograph maintain a poised
grip on their bouquets befitting a bridesmaid, despite their rather awkward
and ungainly postures captured in this moment of photographic intervention.
That Barney recognizes that moment of propriety - they are bridesmaids
after all and must conform to the ritual task at hand - testifies to her
love of the colloquy between us that gesture reveals. At the same time,
however, she documents the odd tension between the girls - perhaps the
two on the right disputing the one on the left (note their slight frowns
and physical responses to the talking girl on the left) or perhaps they
were simply shocked by the strobe effect of the flash. While we know that
Barney stages many of her photographs, often asking her subjects to repeat
gestures that she found interesting while watching them, her photographs
maintain that snapshot-like quality found in the family album. The
Black Dresses suggests a triangular composition essentially composed
of three women, two of whom are, like the bridesmaids, slightly disconnected
from the third because of their gesture and the physical spaces between
them. In Barney's photographs, private merges with public in that the
images often document private moments between family members, yet we,
outside the photographs' internal domain, bring to them public awareness
of the social, political, and economic times in which they were made.
Because of their snapshot-like narrative, the photographs attest to a
certain time. The bridesmaids in pink conform to current fashion, itself
a retrograde citation to a generation ago; the black dresses affirm that
there are certain particollective knowledge, or understanding of linear
time and social practices informs the diverse meanings that the photographs
may have. Kuhn further explains, "Memories evoked by a photograph
do not simply spring out of the image itself, but are generated in an
intertext of discourses that shift between past and present, spectator
and image, and between all these and cultural contexts, historical moments.
In all this, the image figures largely as a trace, a clue: necessary,
but not sufficient, to the activity of meaning-making; always signaling
somewhere else." (8)
It is that elusive "somewhere else" that Tina Barney's photographs
embrace, together with their here-and-now effects. By focusing repeatedly
on a narrow subject matter - friends and family - whose meanings radiate
outward from their subjects' center, Barney begins to satisfy her own
question, "How can one photograph possibly explain a relationship?"
(9) While each image may draw her nearer to her answer, the photographs,
with their fluctuating narratives, refuse to embed themselves in a stable
consensus. Instead they shift through multiple layers and choices of meanings
drawn from personal memory and public discourse.