Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Richard Barnes Q&A out in today's National Post

American photographer Richard Barnes has spent more than a decade photographing in museums, and prompting questions about their role in contemporary culture. Some of the striking results are on display at Bau-Xi Photo in Toronto until September 24. (A comprehensive view of his projects is also on display in his book Animal Logic, available nationwide.)

Last week, Barnes spoke to me over the phone about some aspects of his practice. The resulting Q&A is out in the print edition of today's National Post. An excerpt:

Q You’ve been photographing in museums for some time now. Why?

A When I was a student just out of college, I was the photographer for an archaeological excavation in Egypt. Over years of doing that, I started to become interested in the trajectory of what we were taking out of the ground and where it eventually ended up. That led me to photographing in the Cairo Museum, which is an amazing place. Slowly, my interest turned to natural history museums. How we define ourselves through collections, whether they’re individual or national, is something I find fascinating. And the fact that most of what we collect in museums ends up in deep storage—that 90 percent is hidden—is fascinating to me as well.

Q Where did you take some of these photographs?

A Man with Buffalo was taken in Ottawa at the Canadian Museum of Nature; I was working with a Missouri man who goes around the world and does restorations of dioramas. Academy Animals with Painter was taken in San Francisco at the Academy of Sciences. They’d had a fire and were repairing smoke damage, and I happened to be there to photograph something else when I walked by and thought, “My god, that’s curious—animals all covered in plastic.” That was the start of this project. Overall, I’m interested in the theatricality of museums, in the things that are choreographed for you as you walk through, especially dioramas. They’re quite moving for me.

Q How are they moving, exactly?

A Well, I find it paradoxical, the fact that we go out into nature and kill an animal and bring it back and reanimate it behind glass. It’s odd. And dioramas are magical. When I looked at them as a child, and now as an adult, I’m still taken in. I know these animals are dead, but for me, in a sense, they’ve come back to life.

To read the rest, seek out today's Arts & Life section of the National Post.

A very cool thing coming up for Barnes: National Geographic will be publishing his photos of what he calls "living dioramas"--Civil War reenactments. He photographed these reenactments with Civil War-era tintype technology, but, since his first rounds looked too much like what he called a "Civil War trove" he made sure to include images of contemporary spectators on the later rounds of the project. I got a peek at the photos and they are very cool. I advise keeping an eye out for 'em!

I also like the way that Barnes, later in the interview, insists on the validity of what a viewer brings to an artifact, rather than simply giving over to the meaning that has been "choreographed" for it.

(Image of Barnes' Man with Buffalo via Bau-Xi Photo)

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