Tina Barney. Fun Slide. 2017. © Tina Barney. Courtesy the artist

Summers and Sundays with Tina Barney

The artist looks back at summertime images from across her career.

For nearly half a century, Tina Barney has photographed her family and their affluent summer community in Rhode Island. She imbues the studied perfection of her large-format color images with the immediacy and spontaneity of family snapshots. It took years of relentless looking through her camera’s lens to capture the vitality of an improvised moment on a negative large enough to hold detail even when enlarged to 4 × 5 feet—an almost unimaginable scale when she first pursued it. Time in quarantine—a period of reflection for many of us—prompted Barney to revisit these earliest color pictures.

Tina Barney. Water Slide in the Fog. 1979

Tina Barney. Water Slide in the Fog. 1979

During winters in Idaho she attended photography workshops at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. It was there in 1976 that she became interested in producing larger work, after Peter de Lory taught her to make oversize prints by agitating chemicals over the surface of photographic paper using garbage bags in a sink: few darkrooms were equipped to manage anything larger than 16 × 20 inches. And it was there that she took a color photography workshop with Mark Klett.

In the summer of 1979, Barney was working with a handheld 35mm camera, experimenting with color film for the first time. At that moment, black and white was the language of “art” photographs. It was a surprise to me, more than 40 years later, to see her contact sheets (the most effective way to review 36 exposures on a typical roll of 35mm film), and to remember the analog process of surveying the entire roll, then looking more closely at a particular suite of images, and finally identifying the few that seemed most promising to enlarge. I’m struck by the variety of perspectives in these images—a handheld camera is easily angled up or down—and by the ways in which narratives emerge from the relationship between images, in a life seen through those around her. A local waterslide, an estate auction, a beach picnic: she was photographing what was close at hand, and revealing in the process performances of alliance and disalliance.

Contact sheet (detail). 1979

Contact sheet (detail). 1979

Sunday New York Times. 1982

Sunday New York Times. 1982

Making large prints from small negatives wasn’t optimal—there simply isn’t enough information in the negative—so in 1981 she began working with a 4 x 5-inch view camera that required a tripod in order for the image to be in focus. Barney describes her photos from that year as “stiff,” but by 1982 she had coaxed some of my most beloved images from that cumbersome setup. One of the best known of these early large-scale color photos is Sunday New York Times, which was included less than a year after it was made in an exhibition at MoMA, Big Pictures by Contemporary Photographers. Given how commonplace large prints have become, It’s a challenge to remember just how unusual it was to make them at that time. For this Artist Project, we’ve asked Tina Barney to share with us a portfolio of some of her favorite summer images, reaching all the way back to her earliest photographs in black and white, and including a contact sheet of negative strips from her first color work in 1979.

Tennis Court. 1988

Tennis Court. 1988

The Black Wall. 2005

The Black Wall. 2005

Fraternal Twins. 2016

Fraternal Twins. 2016

Bike Parade. 2017

Bike Parade. 2017

The Tent. 2020

The Tent. 2020

Drowning. 2020

Drowning. 2020