An Interview with Thomas F. Barrow
by David Ondrik
Thomas F. Barrow has had a major impact on contemporary photography. He came into the field at a pivotal time; the mid-1960’s. He went to graduate school at the Institute of Design, studying with Aaron Siskind. From there it was to the George Eastman House in Rochester, working with the likes of Beaumont Newhall and Van Deren Coke. Barrow’s most recent curatorial endeavor is the book “Photography: New Mexico,” published in 2008. His own work started to push the bounds of photography: photograms, scratched negatives, torn up prints reassembled with silicone caulk, and 3-D objects all became hallmarks of his exploration of the medium. For the Society issue of Finite Foto, I visited Tom’s studio to talk about life, the universe, and everything. — David Ondrik
David Ondrik: When revisiting “Inventories & Transformations” I was struck by the strong influence of Pop Art in your early work.
Tom Barrow: It was hard not to be influenced by it. It was just revving up and I liked it. And the works of the great artists, Lichtenstein, Warhol, they’re looking better all the time. Warhol was just a really smart guy. They really saw that there is something deeply awry in our culture. I don’t mean predicting the end of the world but waste, greed; it’s all awry.
DO: Tell us a little bit about your work.
TB: People see me as a cultural critic. This used to bother me and I thought that they weren’t looking closely enough, but now I think it’s okay. I’ve started two projects called “Detritus”, one a portfolio of waterless lithographs and the other a 3-D project, and I’m continuing to think about consumption. What we throw away is quite extraordinary. Recently there was an article in The New Yorker explaining waste in our culture, in particular cell phones. Although cell phone batteries can be replaced, the phone capacitors wear out after about 7 to 8 years. When it’s gone you throw it away. But that largely doesn’t matter because now phones are a fashion accessory; you throw it away for the slightest changes, long before the capacitors wear out. It’s just one example of waste in our culture, which is what I’ve been commenting on for a while now. I’ve read people saying that America is like Elvis, once great but now fat and irrelevant. Well, I’m not sure we’re irrelevant yet, but we’re fat. And making art out of consumer waste makes you feel pretty good too. But I’m not a recycle artist, I’m not keeping that much out of the dump. We can do so much more, but naked profit prevents us from doing it. What did Dick Cheney say, something like you can recycle if it makes you feel good but it’s irrelevant? That’s the problem. I don’t think my photographs are about this so much, but the sculptural works are.
DO: So what are your new photographs about?
TB: I think they’re about abstraction. That’s an interesting challenge, to me, about photography. Newhall says in his photo history that the first abstract photo is Strand’s White Fence. I never understood that, there’s nothing abstract about it. You can see everything; it’s hugely representational. In photography it’s a real challenge to get away from that. In painting you don’t have to paint an objective image, you make a thing with paint and maybe it’s objective and maybe it’s not. It’s really hard to use the camera, which records objects, and work towards unrecognizable images. I printed one a couple of weeks ago that I could not read, visually, with an 8x magnification, so I made a 5×7 and was still really challenged by its abstractness and that got me really excited. When the 20×24 print made, I remembered exactly what it was and it is absolutely not there, you don’t know. But there’s something going on, a physicality that you like looking at, and you can make out vegetation – green grainy stuff. After all the high reprographic detail work I’ve done, I’m going as far in the other direction as I can.
DO: Does it disappoint you that many of the issues you raised about cars – high tech consumer objects abused into discarded junk - in your graduate thesis (Student Independent 6) are still relevant, that a current student could address the exact same issue (which is maybe even worse) 45 years later?
TB: Not really. Here’s what I think: it proves that things change slowly, very slowly. I was confounded when everybody went crazy that GM went into bankruptcy – nobody thought we should have transition to make rail cars or trams or mass transit. The response was SAVE THE CAR. Now, the car really is fun. It’s got privacy, heat, AC, music. It’s still a rolling bedroom for many. And this is a very hard thing to break. India and China are starting to come out of poverty and they want cars more than TV or anything else. I’m not sure how that desire will ever be broken. We certainly can’t go back to horses. But it doesn’t discourage me. Funny you would ask me about those images – they’re enjoying considerable popularity right now. I was thinking more about Robert Frank when I made them. I was living outside Chicago, in Evanston, and had a part time job on the South Side, so I’d spend at least two and a half hours in the car every day. So I saw these photos as an extension of my thinking about spending so much time in the car. It’s been so long now that I can almost look at them like I didn’t make them.
DO: Why do you think photography is so visually conservative, so literal?
TB: One reason I did the torn up photos is to point to the power of a photo. I tear it up, reassemble it with a sort of order, and it still reads as a photograph. But nobody seems to want to be challenged in photography. Maybe it is simply too easy, people want a simple rendition of what they saw at one time or another. A friend wrote me, regarding the recent Adams Polaroid auction, to say he just doesn’t get it, that Adams is the greatest 19th century photographer who happened to work in the 20th. Now, Adams was a great guy, great Naturalist, Environmentalist, Martini drinker. But there’s nothing 20th century about his photography. Looking at his photos you wouldn’t know that Impressionism, Futurism, Abstract Expressionism – that there were major changes in the visual arts in the 20th century. I don’t know why it is that his 19th century look is so enduring. Nathan Lyons used to ask, when you’re looking at a picture do you see the picture or do you see what you want to see? Your eye really isn’t open to fresh things with photography, you have expectations with photos and they aren’t very great. I’m still disappointed after 40 years that people aren’t very demanding of photography.
DO: You definitely seem interested in the photographic object, art made with photography, instead of the traditional photographic print. It seems that this is something missing from digital photography, that there’s nothing tangible, plastic to mess with. You’ve got to be a programmer to mess with a digital image.
TB: Bottom line – ideas are important no matter how you make them. Artists don’t care what they use. Manipulating pixels is very different than silver based photography. But it all still responds to light. Adobe uses photo terms to describe how their tools work even though what you’re doing in Photoshop is so far removed from those techniques in a darkroom. Photography is very conservative right now. Manipulation is really, really heavy handed in many cases. I received a card in the mail for a show, and the image was a woman covered in cockroaches. It was well done, but to what end? It just seemed like it was trying to be creepy. Horror movies have been around forever, and they do a better job.
I’ve seen a few Phone photo shows and it’s just another way to make images, just another thing. An iPhone 4 still has super low resolution compared to a disposable 35mm point & shoot. Photographers need to separate the novelty from real stuff – things with ideas, weight, a lasting quality – whatever that may be.
I’ve been watching a series of photo documentaries on the Ovation channel, they’ve covered W. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa. The one about Smith’s photo essay on Pittsburgh was really fascinating. He made 7,000 prints and narrowed it down to 2,000. I can’t imagine that being done today. He had a strong desire to say something about what he saw as a great American city. Now – it’s too easy to fill a card with thousands of photos. I don’t think you really spend the necessary time with them when it’s so easy. I used to use 20 exposure rolls and thought it was too much at once. Your brain easily disassociates from so many images taken so quickly. Nobody knows where all this digital stuff is going, but it’s going. The demand is driven by the manufacturers, and they’re good at their job.
DO: What do you think of photo books?
TB: I think they’re good, I think there are too many now. I get a lot of remaindered lists from publishers, and there are a lot of photography books. Almost all the Powerhouse books are remaindered. They’re not covering interesting people or ideas. Sometimes the books cost too much, even though printing is cheaper and cheaper, which I don’t quite understand. Also, at this point you can’t look at a photo book on a Kindle. When you look at the NYT on-line, they still have a photo editor. The images and the reproduction is terrific. I don’t know why the Kindle can’t do it.
DO: How did Van Deren Coke bring you to UNM?
TB: Van was hired to be deputy director of Eastman House when Newhall announced he was going to retire. I had never met him, although I knew about him. This was around 1970. It turned out that he and I got along very well. He was pretty iconoclastic, which was pretty fun for me. Actually, Nathan Lyons was too, but he’d gone to start Visual Studies Workshop. The pay was so terrible that I turned in my resignation letter and was planning to teach at RIT. Van told me to tear up the letter and he’d get more money, which he did. I become co-curator with Harold Jones, who then left to start Light Gallery, so I became assistant director. It was an exciting time, Van had a lot of energy. At one point I went to Toronto to lecture and Van called me and said he resigned today and was going back to New Mexico pretty soon. When I got back to Rochester, Van said "I want you to come to New Mexico," totally out of the blue. He said there was an Associate Director position at the Art Museum. It was the Old Days, there’s no way I’d be hired in that informal way today. I never regretted coming.
All images © Thomas F. Barrow. Image List:
“The Burning Man,” Polaroid SX-70 and mixed media, 1988
“Desert Pyramid (Albuquerque),” Fuji Crystal Archive print, 2006
“From the Series The Automobile,” gelatin silver print, 1964-65
“Cancellations (Brown) – Dome,” toned gelatin silver print, 1974
“Springerville Fragment,” mixed media, 1980