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Barbara Ess, Hair, 2018, inkjet print, hair. Courtesy of 3A Gallery, New York, and Magenta Plains, New York.

Barbara Ess (1948–2021)

Barbara Ess, a boundary-pushing photographer, musician, and writer, and the creator of the No Wave experimental media zine Just Another Asshole, died today at the age of seventy-three. Ess was most widely known for her large-scale photographs made using a pinhole camera, a rarity in the art world but a device she used to great effect, producing blurred, haunting images that evoked variously dreamy anxiety, shattered romanticism, and the stuttering disquiet of the late twentieth century.

Born in Brooklyn, Ess earned her BA at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1969 before going on to attend the London School of Film Technique. Returning to New York, she immersed herself in the downtown scene of the time, playing in No Wave bands Disband, the Static, and Y Pants, in which the musicians played toy instruments or in some instances fried-chicken buckets, enhancing their thin and tinkling sounds with electric bass, a Casio keyboard, and, occasionally, a hammer.

Also in 1978, Ess launched her influential mixed-media publication Just Another Asshole, which took on various forms over the following eight years, including a 77-track vinyl LP and an insert in Artforum (on whose cover her work later appeared, in 1990). Ess employed an open-submission process, coediting issues with Jane Sherry and with avant-garde musician and composer Glenn Branca, her bandmate in the Static.

After coming across a diagram of a pinhole camera in a 1983 newspaper article, Ess built one of her own and began experimenting with it, displaying the results two years later in a well-received show at Cable Gallery. While the device—typically a cardboard box with a hole in it—does not allow focusing, instead blurring foreground images and making the background seem more distant than it is, Ess in 1991 told the Los Angeles Times that it suited her because “because my mind works better when my means are narrowed.” She would go on to work in the format across her entire career, during which she exhibited widely. For a recent solo exhibition at New York’s Magenta Plains, in 2019, however, she abandoned the pinhole camera for the similarly limited-focus surveillance feed.

Ess continued to make music through the 1980s, contributing tracks to the Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine and in 2001 collaborating with experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh on the album Radio Guitar for Thurston Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. She began teaching photography at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, in 1997, and in 2005 published I Am Not This Body, a book of her pinhole photographs. Her work, exhibited widely across the country, resides in the permanent collections of museums including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

“I think of my work as an investigation and it’s always concerned with the same question,” she told the LA Times. “Exactly what is the true nature of reality?”

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