Allan Barnes’ images might range from the essential to the elaborate, yet regardless the style, a dominant feeling of immediacy permeats his work, captivating the viewer. The LA based photographer focuses on traditional 19th cent techniques creating images overflowing with ambience, appreciating the human form with honesty, contrasting to the digital enhancements the media abundantly feature.
Interview by Demetrios Drystellas
Allan, how did it all start, what attracted you to the medium and how did you develop your style?
At that age of ten, I was looking at a literature textbook in elementary school, (Detroit Public Schools) and saw a sequence of images by Duane Michaels. Specifically, “Margaret Finds a Box”
I knew right then that I wanted to learn photography. It took me until my last year of high school to take a class. In the beginning, like a lot of people, I did not know what I wanted to shoot, then I started making large format landscapes of Detroit, which even 32 years ago was starting to disappear. Then I left the US to study in Spain for a year, and a large format camera was not so practical, so I started using 35mm exclusively and combined with an interest in photojournalism, evolved into a people/event/documentary photographer.
I worked for newspapers and magazines, so I was mainly interested in reality.
About 18 years ago I took a little “sabbatical” and went to live in Mexico City, where I started doing more experimental work, but also continued to work as a photojournalist. Then I was offered a job working for a magazine in Guam started by a mentor of mine, Manny Crisostomo.
I was encouraged to expand from 35mm to medium and large format, and I was pushed to use experimental techniques like Polaroid Transfers, so suddenly I was using a 4 x 5 camera again and it was like becoming reacquainted with your first sweetheart. I began making more experimental work, nudes, etc. I fell in love with Polaroid materials, (especially their Type 55, 665 and 669 films) not knowing that my love would be dead in the next decade.
By 2005 it was obvious that Polaroid was doomed and I noticed this little increase in the use and publication of antique processes. I saw Jerry Spagnoli’s Daguerreotype of the burning World Trade Center on 9.11 and then Robert Maxwell’s ambrotypes and I knew where I was going next.
I took a workshop with Joni Sternbach in late 2005 and then another with John Coffer in 2006 and then I moved to Los Angeles, where I found an incredible cast of performers, designers, models and stylists all ready and willing to collaborate with me.
Where do you draw inspiration from? Are there particular artists or works of art that have shaped you?
Sure, to name a few: Joyce Tennyson, Paolo Roversi, Luis Gonzalez-Palma, Sarah Moon, Alfred Cheney Johnston.
Standing on the antipode of the ease and instant gratification that the digital medium offers, you use extensively analogue/alternative processes, which are technically challenging. What attracted you to those 19th century techniques? Is there something more than the visual outcome to it?
Of course! I realize now that I became a photographer because I did not like to sit still and photography gave me all sorts of excuses to not sit still, so part of the attraction is the intense physical nature of the process…Besides that, there is the whole notion of random reinforcement, which means that not every plate comes out in a predictable way so even two images made one after another might be completely different. When you do get a great image, it’s an incredible high. At the same time, because the images must be developed right after you expose them, there is a similarity with Polaroid Materials.
What is the relationship between time and photography? I find it very interesting that the techniques you use date from approximately the 1850s.
Photography is a young medium, compared to, say, drawing or painting or printmaking.
I like my images to be vague in terms of timeliness. One of my favorite books is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in which the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, opens the book by declaring “I have become unstuck in time” That’s what I strive for.
How spontaneous is the photographic process for you? Do you spend time pre-planning and story-boarding or do you rather let creativity flow during the session?
I don’t storyboard, I do sometimes find historical images that I like to reference. An example of this is the series that I did with Neptunian Haze, (The Butterfly Collector) which was inspired by an old “Trade Daguerreotype”.
The most difficult question for all artists. If it all ended now and you could keep only one image, which one would it be why?
Well, that’s not so hard, because if I lost all my work it would force me to make more! Mostly, I don’t make photographs as memories, but I made a portrait of my father a few summers ago, He’s sitting in a chair with the family dog and they are both looking out the window. He died the following year; it’s the last good picture that I made of him, that’s the one that I would keep, as it’s also the best picture that I ever made of him.
Do you ever get disappointed with photography? Especially in the digital era, where everything has, given the increased artistic output, acquired a limited life span?
No, the only thing that I find disappointing about the current state of technology is the archiving, or rather the lack of it. My great grandfather was a photographer, among other things, in a small town in Ontario, Canada and I can open old boxes and see look through all these pictures that he made of his family.
If there are negatives, or slides I can hold them up to the light and see what is on them. You can’t hold a CD or a flash drive up to the light and see what is on them, most photographs taken today are not printed, and thinking of all the changes in technology platforms in the last ten years, it’s obvious that most of today’s images will be lost in all the static… It’s an archiving holocaust.
Lazlo Maholy Nagy said almost 100 years ago “The illiterate of the future will be ignorant of the use of the camera” I think that what he meant was that we were going to increase our use of pictures as communication.
The accessibility of photography is more democratic than it was, but again, that archiving thing is a drag.
What is the one thing you wish you had more of in your work?
More perfection, what else would I wish for?!
What do you seek when taking a person’s portrait? What is more, do the models embody your vision, in essence portraying characters, or are they themselves?
I strive not so much for realism, but for magic realism. The models are always themselves, but they are my version of themselves.
More often than not in photography, the subject dominates the image. This is especially seen in landscapes and nudes alike. What are your thoughts on it and what are the biggest challenges you face, regarding nudes, where, unlike nature or still life, it is a collaboration.
Well, it’s a very old subject matter, as is landscape. So the challenge becomes how to do it in a way that is fresh, yet in my case, evokes the history of photography….I recently went though some of the first nudes that I ever shot, made on a summer trip to Portugal when I was 23. And they were awful. Because I was inexperienced and the photos are more about “Wow, my girlfriend’s ass is really hot”.
If you had the chance to photograph 3 people, living or from the past, without any financial constraints, who would they be and how would the photographic session be?
It is romantic to invoke time machines, but I think that the future is always more interesting than the past. Artists are cool, but revolutionaries and people who stand up and spit in the face of oppressors are cooler. So I would photograph Malala Yousafza, Lyudmila Alexeyeva, Pussy Riot (they are really 3 people, but let’s consider them a unit) and anybody who is fighting oppression anywhere in the world, be it in Syria, Iran, Russia or the United States.
If you have lived your life well, your regrets should be about the things that you did not do, rather than the thing that you did. I regret not moving to New York City when I was just out of college. I was paralyzed by fear. I suppose that such things happen to the best of us. Mostly, my life has been a series of great adventures.
What should we expect to see in the future?
I am lucky enough to be able to say that I have been doing the best work of my life in the last 5 years, so I hope to continue to produce the best work of my life, and I need to take my work in a direction that is more political.
Interview by Demetrios Drystellas