The charming stories behind some of Tina Barney’s most iconic portraits

The acclaimed American photographer walks us through eight of her strikingly intimate images of American and European life.

Over the last four decades, Tina Barney has captured friends and family – East Coast American socialites and Europe’s upper crust – on film. Think: bougie garden parties, powder-pink bathrooms, floral foyers, drawing rooms, china cabinets, formal dining rooms, uniforms, dolls and dresses, outdoor barbeques and heirlooms of the one percent.

Barney started honing her craft during the 70s, when she left New York City to move to Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho. The Sun Valley Center for Arts and Humanities in Ketchum taught her everything she knows, including her photographic trademark: colossal prints. A woman came into the dark room one day and said, Do you know that you can blow your pictures up bigger?’” Barney recalls. That was in 1980 and it was revolutionary.” Supersized imagery has become her calling card since.

Barney is an uncompromising observer. Her large format film shots dive deep into the realm of familial and social relationships, jarring in their ability to depict intimate moments between loved ones – births, breakups, teenage bedrooms and intergenerational relationships – on a large scale with painterly precision. Journey through her expansive archive and you’ll notice that her complex visual compositions of her family and friends in 80s and 90s America (see: Theatre of Manners) have, over time, transitioned into simpler – yet no less powerful – portraits (see: The Europeans, a series shot from 1996 – 2004).

Barney’s first European shoot took place in Rome, while staying with a friend at the American Academy. It was so beyond any dream I had ever had, maybe any movie I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe it,” Barney recalls, sounding still genuinely in awe. 

I grew up with a very comfortable background – I spent time in Europe during my childhood and I thought I’d seen a lot, but what I saw in those eight years… It had nothing to do with wealth – that didn’t have anything to do with what I was so overwhelmed by – you can’t buy what I saw,” Barney says. The people in [these houses] absolutely fascinated me. I spoke Italian and French but not German and Spanish. The English, well, their sense of humour is such an amazing form of communication.”

I didn’t have the courage to direct these people. But the way they stood and held themselves was so interesting – like it was handed down from generation to generation.”

Depictions of wealth, interior design and tradition have all changed dramatically since Barney’s early work, but at this moment in time in particular – thanks to the forced return of shared experience that comes as a byproduct of a pandemic – one thing remains, in part, the same: domesticity and time spent at home. 

Six months on from Barney’s Lily-Rose Depp cover of The Face, the photographer talks us through eight of her strikingly intimate images of American and European life.

THE GRAHAM CRACKER BOX, 1983

I began photographing families seriously – with an intention in mind – in 1976. The images were about the fact that I thought families weren’t close enough. I was 31-years-old then. I don’t know why I was so serious about it and why I had these thoughts.

I started directing the people in the photos when I started using a 45 camera in 1981. I wasn’t using any lights at the time, so I was asking people to hold still. I was partially directing people. That’s my girl friend standing in the back, she had just come home from tennis. Most things are left the same. I told the girl to sit on the chair and get on the phone. I liked the fact that it matched a lot of things in the room. I had a wide angle lens and that’s why everything is almost elongated or out of proportion. I was thinking about composition. I liked to vary the scale in the room – that’s why the mother is standing up. I had a lot of structure in mind but I took the pictures quickly, so a lot of it is chance.

People have always loved this photograph – I think it has a lot to do with the palette and the colours matching. Back at that time people used to ask me whether I had a prop stylist or a set designer. It does look almost choreographed because of the repetition: you have the phone that’s red, the little boys T‑shirt that’s red and the cracker box that’s red. I’ve studied and read about visual perception and how the eye of the viewer is drawn into the photograph, but this was done very, very quickly.

THE PORTRAIT, 1984

It was around this time that I started really wanting a specific narrative when I walked into a situation. In the beginning, I was just trying to get people to pose for me. So here I wanted to talk about handing [something] down from generation to generation. I had my friend hand her daughter to her brother, but the icing on the cake was the housekeeper – how she’s looking at those three people with – I think – love and devotion. 

It’s called The Portrait because that portrait [on the wall] looks like the little girl that’s in the photograph (but obviously that’s not her) so there’s this generational thing. The bureau is covered in wallpaper that matches the wall – someone took the paper and covered the bureau with it, all those kinds of things are important for me. 

Don’t forget that these pictures were four-by-five feet at this point, they were very big for the 80s. I wanted the viewer to see all those things that were to do with collecting, tradition, the upkeep of a house of this size and the interior decoration.

JOHN’S DEN, 1985

By 1985 – this is technical, but interesting – I had learned how to put a flash on top of the camera, which allowed me to go inside to get better resolution and better lighting. This is in New York City and it’s about a business man coming home to his kids. 

The way they are dressed is interesting to me, the fact that these two boys had to wear coats and ties to go to school; at that point, we had moved our kids to a ski resort in Idaho and I realised that my sons would probably never wear a coat and tie again .

It was also about childrens’ respect towards their parents. I had the boy in the shirt stand up while talking to his father. When we moved out west to this very informal place, the idea of standing up to talk to an elder was completely foreign. I had the father and son looking at each other, and the boy sitting down looking at his friend. I was interested in the idea of this circle of movement – the eyes moving around the photograph, from one person to another, to absorb what’s in it.

THE DOLLHOUSE, 1986

It’s interesting that people from a certain location, at a certain time, had the same taste. If you go back into the 19th century, you wonder why everyone’s houses looked the same.

I’ve just realised something fun: that little blonde girl is the baby in The Portrait. If you go through all my books you’ll see the children growing in different pictures through time. That young man is the young man in The Portrait who’s having the sister handed to him.

THE LADY, 2001

The Lady is the owner of a flat we rented in London in 2001, and she actually was a Lady. I’m not going to say her name, but you had to put Lady before it. There’s something very simple about it. Portraiture really is my true love. After I went through all of these narratives, what really interested me was portraiture. I realised that one person is the most difficult, yet intellectually challenging, of all. What I love about this is the slant – the S‑shape – of her body, her posture, her hand in her pocket and the way she’s looking at me. It’s very simple, but I just love this portrait.

THE GRANDDAUGHTER, 2004

This is taken in Germany. I didn’t tell her how to look. The term the gaze” is used a lot in the history of art and in that gaze you find that everything you see is about the spirit of this woman: the composure and the grace that she has. Those are her grandparents behind her. If you see this up close, the resolution and the texture and the colour of her skin is extraordinary.

I don’t mean to criticise American children, but the way that these children [in Europe] came up to me and greeted me, I almost thought I was going to swoon and fall on the floor. They had been taught to look the person they were meeting in the eye, and to hold their hand out. There’s no way an American child could do that without being a laughing stock.

THE BLUE SWEATER, 2001

When something is this simple, there’s not much I can say about it. There’s so much about his attitude that describes a boy that age. These are families I found through friends and I’ve never used, or revealed, their names – the names are so unimportant to me.

THE LOLLIPOPS, 2001

These kids are so British to me and I don’t have too much to say about it. I just love that uniform on that girl – you’d never find that in America.


Loading...
00:00 / 00:00