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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The rich are richer than you and I

I am absolutely fascinated by photographer Tina Barney’s work and thrilled it is coming to Atlanta’s Fay Gold Gallery today. Barney will be at the opening from 6-8 p.m.

Photographers from Diane Arbus to Shelby Lee Adams and incalculable others have documented the abject and marginal in our midst. Arbus is famous for her images of “freaks” and Adams’ portraits of Appalachian hill folk open up a hidden world of the very poor. But the very rich are “different from you and me” as F. Scott Fitzgerald observed. “Soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful.”

They are also often as hidden away from many of us as the poor. Which makes Barney’s work all the more interesting. It lifts the veil that often protects the wealthy from prying eyes. Barney’s also seems an essentially democratic project: Why should we gawk only at society’s lowest rungs, as photographers and art-goers often have, when there is as much possibility for revelation and insight to be gleaned from its highest?

click to enlarge the-daughters-_246-2002-2.jpg

(Photo: Tina Barney)

I love this image of the blond family. Their wealth is conveyed not only in the tapestry that dominates the living room and something luxurious and formal in the decor. The large number of children (an interesting phenomenon the rich and poor often seem to have in common) combined with the wife’s stylish dress and well-maintained, slim appearance all add to the total impression. There is a semiotics to wealth just as there is to the middle class in Bill Owens’ Suburbia or the drifters and hardscrabble souls in Richard Avedon’s In the American West.

click to enlarge two-friends-_274-2002.jpg

(Photo: Tina Barney)

What makes this image a portrait of the rich? Is it their slightly eccentric style to suggest a freedom of expression not always allowed other groups? The sense of comfort and ease in their demeanor different from the uneasiness others reveal when photographed?

Though Barney often stages and orchestrates her images (much in the way Shelby Lee Adams has revealed he does) I love the hint you get of people’s lives in this photo:

click to enlarge graham-cracker-box.jpg

(Photo: Tina Barney)

It looks like an advertisement for graham crackers, but without the proper triggers of domestic perfection and an idealized moment to appeal to consumers. The mother’s glass of wine and tennis whites and the comfortable sprawl of the many children at the kitchen table perhaps also returned from their tennis lessons make me long, like any interesting project does, to see more.

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