Richard Barnes divides his time between commissioned work and personal projects. He is the photographer for numerous books including most recently, The Making of a New Museum, on the new San Francisco Museum of Art and Building on the Past, about the Cantor Center for the Arts at Stanford University.
Current projects include the exhibition entitled, Still Rooms & Excavations, which has been shown across the country and will open at the musuem of the University of New Mexico in October. His work on the Unabomber Cabin opened in New York last year and will be in the exhibition entitled, RaumGrenzen, in Vienna, Austria this fall.
His photographs are in numerous public and private collections including the Metropolitain Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as well as the Levi Strauss and Bank of America collections and the Harvard Photographic Archive. He was a recipeint of the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award in Photography for 1999.
John Paul Caponigro You’ve photographed some unusual places over the years. Tell me about a few of them.
Richard Barnes Over the past ten years I have been photographing excavation sites and the institutions dedicated to the collection and preservation of objects and artifacts. In my work I use the methods and practice of archaeology. I’m concerned with artifacts both historic and contemporary which act as evidence that testifies to present day conditions and concerns.
This often occurs in conjunction with architecture as it did recently on an assignment commissioned by the New York Times Magazine to photograph the Unabomber’s Cabin. The home of Ted Kacznski for over thirty years, the cabin represents a particularly American ideal of rural self sufficiency and independence gone horribly awry. After Kaczynski’s capture the cabin was put on a truck and shipped from its mountainous site in Montana to an FBI storage facility on an airforce base in Sacramento, for use in his trial, which never occurred. The cabin sits in Limbo, the archetypal house, with iconic an almost banal presence, masking the evil its infamous owner unleashed upon the American public.
I’m interested in both the idea of displacement, and the ambiguity of representation. I was struck by the notion that someone’s house, an object profoundly private and personal, could be trucked across the country and used as evidence in the trial of its owner. I decided to move the cabin from where it was stored and photograph it in an empty room of the warehouse. This room had the qualities of both an interrogation space and a modern art gallery. Conceptually, the cabin in this white cube began to take on the aura of a piece of minimalist sculpture or art installation. I found I was using Kacznski’s house to talk about larger issues within the art world having to do with fetishized objects, celebrity, and the ambiguity of things seen not being what they really are. In addition to the images within the warehouse I went back to Montana and photographed the forested site on which the cabin once stood. The outline of the cabin was now delineated by a chainlink fence, marked with the FBI warnings ö “danger” and “no trespassing”.
I also treated the cabin as evidence, photographing it from all four sides against a black backdrop. Isolated from its surroundings, scale being ambiguous and floating in black space, it looks like a toy, a very malignant one at that. The ambiguity of scale, space and representation, allows the viewer of my photographs to enter them on their own terms, draw their own conclusions, and then perhaps be surprised when they find out what they are really looking at. If one can read a piece on many levels then, to me, that means it’s working.
JPC I agree. I think work is strong to the degree that it points out the problematic nature of its own being. I think of Shakespeare as the master of ambiguity; his work can be read on so many levels and in so many different ways. That a work could be ambiguous does not necessarily mean it is vague, it could mean that it is able to foster deeper reflection. This kind of work is multivalent, many-leveled. I believe you used the word ‘stratographic’ to describe your work. Can you give me an example?
RB In 1994 I was commissioned by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco to document the renovation and expansion of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a museum originally established to exhibit European Art and Design. The museum had been hit hard in the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 and had been closed down for five years before renovation began. Upon excavation of the museum courtyard, workers began to dig up what was at first thought to be isolated bone scatter and later would number nearly 800 intact burials from beneath the museums foundations. Built in the 1920’s the Legion is a replica of the Legion d’ Honneur in Paris, established by Napoleon as a memorial to French war dead. It was discovered that the California Palace of the Legion of Honor had been built on top of a Gold Rush era cemetery. The collected history of many hundreds of people lay forgotten beneath the museum for over 70 years.
My interest in this site developed out of the work I had been doing on excavations in Egypt. While working in Egypt, photographing excavations and artifacts whose age is measured in millennia rather than decades, I experienced history as a succession of strata, put down layer by layer, with each layer demarcating another historical period. This visual banding of time continues to inform my work. I’m captivated by the idea of the existence of a past that refuses to depart completely, but instead lies buried, quietly insisting, interrupting the continuum of our collective present.
As I worked along side the archaeologists I became aware that what was happening inside the museum while it was undergoing renovation was being mirrored outside as the burials were being excavated. Museums are purveyors of the past, a very selected past. I began to question the role museums play in the collection and preservation of artifacts. How does an institution determine what is to be saved and validated and what is to be discarded and forgotten? What past is worthy of collection and preservation? Whose expendable and why? My exhibition, Still Rooms & Excavations, currently showing in New York, grew out of these questions.
JPC Preserving history, looking back at history, making history, they’re enduring themes for photography. Do you feel you’re confirming history, revealing history, making history, making the history of history making? Tell me a bit about how history works in your work.
RB I especially like the concept of making the history of history making. In a very real sense this is what this age of pluralism, our post-modern times if you will, have wrought, for better or worse. We have all these forms to play with and everything is open to us. This is what allowed me to remove Ted Kacznski’s cabin from its original place in the warehouse and put it in a new context that alludes to something other than the current event of the Unabomber story. It’s the history, however recent, of modern art, of installation works that I was addressing, albeit in a very elliptical way. The Legion of Honor work is more specifically related to the historical past. It’s a history long buried and forgotten which has come back to haunt us. It’s the collected history of many hundreds of people made more poignant by the fact that the institution that happened to have been built on top of them was a museum. Museums are set up to collect, preserve and hopefully educate us about the past, but in this case it was not a history the museum was interested in. It is also, however, not inconceivable that some of the museum’s board of trustees’ ancestors could have been buried there. I found the irony in all of this provocative.
JPC Context is important for any work but it seems extremely important for your work. There’s the context of the object or the event being photographed. There’s the lack of context, either when objects are removed from their original context for study or when you minimize or eliminate the background of the subject. Tell me more about how you relate to context, perhaps some of your personal responses to its power.
RB When I isolate an object, take it out of context by erasing the background, etcetera, I usually do it so I can free it from its history and give it a new voice. If I’m successful this voice can have multiple meanings. Usually the history of an artifact, informs this new reading, like a palimpsest where the original text has been effaced but it continues to effect the whole. Not long ago, for example, I was in Beirut, Lebanon. This once beautiful city had been brought to near ruin from 20 years of fictional fighting. My driver would attempt to take me to the meager tourist spots that still existed but I would frustrate him by my requests to go to the center of the city which was completely bombed out. I was fascinated by the scarring on the buildings from the barrage of years of shelling. There were marks from bombs, bullets, and shrapnel. When I looked at them I wasn’t sure what they were. The sad thing is that my driver could identify each one. He wasn’t in the war. He was a taxi driver. He said that’s what happened to us as a culture. He could identify each weapon and the countries that the weapons came from. It was really frightening but interesting at the same time.
JPC That certainly highlights the importance of experience, education too. We certainly couldn’t read these as he could, we would tend to read other things into these images.
RB Yes. After I returned, I looked at the images I took in Beirut and realized the ones I responded to most were the abstract images of munitions exploded on the walls of the city. The piece I created, Untitled Beirut, could read on may levels. The images, the calligraphy of the war, were transformed when taken out of context. Some resembled topographic 3-D maps of strange planets or undersea worlds and others appearing like violent Rorschach blots. Taking these images out of context gave them new meaning and a power they never would have had if they were simply read as the effects of warfare.
JPC Curious our desire to look at things in isolation. Editing creates clarity. Yet without context we’re not sure how to read things. When we look at objects in museums they’re out of context, they’re in a new context. History has been transcribed, translated, even rewritten. Yet these are the things that are supposed to be our links to the past. We’re expected to know how to read the whole package, object and environment, which includes it’s process of becoming.
RB It’s human nature to create categories and to decontextualize even though it can lead to confusion and misinformation. Wester art history, for example, is full of neat groupings and attempts at clarity through the creation of categories. Editing does potentially create clarity, but the important question to ask is who is doing the editing, or in the case of the museum, the curating, and what has been left out in the process. On the other hand, I think it needs to be said that the moment we create an image ora body of work we’re engaged in a sleection process, edited and “self-curated” if you will, through out own highly subjective accumulation of knowledge and experience.
JPC There was a wonderful exhibition in the anthropology museum at the University of British Columbia. You walked through glass cases housing the archives with pull out drawers. Off in the corner they had this terriffic anthropological/archeological display for kids. They applied both methods of interpretation to contemporary artifacts like Burger King wrappers, Coke bottles, bubble blowers and other funny little things, analyzing them and providing a plausible theory on their function and origins. Sometimes the stories were dead on and other times they were absurd. It was about the process of looking. They made history interactive.
RB I like that museum very much. Not only do they make history interactive, but it is also inclusive. History tends to ossify if you’re unaware of you place in it. Through the use of contemporary artifacts and the fictionalized accounts of what we might be looking at or where it came from, we begin to see our present from the viewpoint of the future. This can’t help but make us more aware. Sepaking of things turning to stone, my trip to Beirut was actually to photograph a museum there. Coming just after I’d finished with the Legion of Honor, I went to Beirut to Photograph the National Museum of Art. It turned out the museum, which had been closed for over 20 years, straddled the infamous Green Line that divided Beirut and was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting. The director of the museum, aftertmoving what he could into storage, and fearing that the collection of large and unmovable Phoenician and Roman sculpture would be destroyed if left out unprotected, took the unusual precaution of encasing each sculpture group in concrete. Imagine this building, constructed in the Neo-Egyptian style popular in the 1920’s, housing cthese modern day concrete block ‘sarcophagi’, containing the patrimony of the nation. The director died before the war was over and all records of what was in the concrete blocks were destroyed. So 20 odd years later the new museum staff was struggling with ideas of how to get the sculptures out of their concrete ‘tombs’ without damaging them. I had made all the necessary arrangements with the Ministry of Culture t come to Beirut and photograph them extracting the sculptures, ‘scientifically’, but alas it was not to be. The president of Lebanon announced he wanted to make a visit to the museum to see what progress they’d made since the war eneded, and the staff in frenzy took jack hammers to the concrete, damaging many of the delicate marbles in process. When I arrived it was already too late and they were so embarrassed by what they had done they forbid me to photograph in the museum. It was a missed opportunity, but I was able to make something of my time in Beirut nonetheless.
JPC History is happening all the time, especially now. That’s a classic story about trying to protect something. We wall it off, so it’s no longer accessible, we lose the information, send people out to try and restore it and in the process of restoring it we damage it. And then we have to create stories about it to ‘recover’ what’s been lost.
RB There is a quote that Doug Nickel, The Associate Curator of Photography at San Francisco MOMA, used once in an article about my work. He likened the archeological practice to an autopsy which “only works when it is simultaneously revealing and destroying its object of study.” I like the contradiction implicity in this statement. It reminds me of the film Blow Up by Antonioni, which if you were in art school in the 1970’s was a must see. The fashion photographer played by Devid Hemmings is out photographing nothing in particular in a London park when he meets a very frazzled Vanessa Redgrave. It turns out he’s witnessed a murder in which she’s involved and as he develops the film, he realizes he may have the body on film. But, as he blows up the frame of film, larger and larger, seeking more clarity and information, he is actually deconstructing the image through enlargement and it in fact becomes less and less clear. I’m not really sure what this has to do with history other than it relates to information gathering which history and the archaeological process both share. And the fact that we may not have yet developed the tools to access the information we seek and therefore run the risk of destroying it before we understand it.
JPC I hadn’t registered the forensic quality of your work before.
RB Yes. The term forensic implys the legal system, which my work sometimes alludes to, but I hope my work is more open ended. I would describe it having more to do with an evidence of time passing, of history and its residue, the artifact.
JPC What does the word ‘artifact’ mean to you?
RB No one has every asked me that before. An artifact can mean so many things, but I guess that which remains or survives and is man-made, the product of a culture as opposed to occuring naturally is how I think of it. I use it loosely, remnant is perhpas a more appropriate term, implying the passage of time. Often the artifacts I used in my work are contemporary, however, and have more to do with my process and the result, than the historical past. Other work deals directly with artifacts taken right out of the ground, so I’m expanding my idea of what an artifact is, or can be, all the time.
JPC As I’m listening to you say this I’m beginning to wonder if we’re artifacts? One could look at your body of work as a meta-artifact, an artifact about artifacts, or a meta-history, a history about history making. It’s very interesting to look at this work. In some, the objects are taken completely out of context; in others the context has been eliminated; still in others the picture is almost pure context but we’re not sure how to read the context because the artifacts are no longer present; in others you need to see more than one context to get the full picture. Today you need more than one place to get the full context. Nearly everyone and everything is moving.
RB True. That’s what this work is about. It’s about our times. It’s about absence.