PRINT October 1992


Tina Barney is a kind of Nan Goldin for the Fisher’s Island set, documenting the lives of the genetic originals for Ralph Lauren’s simulacral fantasies. Whereas Lauren hawks an unreal, manicured WASP utopia, Barney’s photographs deliver the prosaic banalities of the real thing. Her work delineates a style of life that belies the implicit anyone-can-have-this commercial come-on of Polo advertising. Yet, like Lauren, Barney is sticking up for the finer things in life. As she put it in a recent interview, “I’m documenting . . . a way of life that I don’t think might ever happen again in America, because . . . the time that it takes to live with quality—in a style of life that has quality—is disappearing.”

I suspect that when Barney talks about quality, she means something very different from Ralph Lauren on behalf of his sheets. Quality for Barney is more than the sum of one’s accoutrements; it is precisely something that you cannot simply buy, however much you might like to buy into it. I look forward to her retrospective, which might be titled “Tina Barney: The Elegiac Vision.”

Barney’s commentators are usually eager to latch onto the work’s darker connotations—to read her tableaux as depictions of the spiritual and emotional aridity of the WASP elite. This line of analysis reminds me of Barbet Schroeder’s movie about the von Bulows, Reversal of Fortune, in which the prematurely embalmed aristos of Clarendon Court are contrasted with heroic Jewish vitalist Alan Dershowitz, who enjoys nothing so much as a mean game of basketball with his panting law-student acolytes. Of course, Claus and Sunny are a lot of sick fun, whereas Dershowitz et al. seem trapped in a TV movie. You get a little of this in photographs like The Watch, 1985, in which a green-faced Post-Impressionist gentleman stares out from his gilt frame at a formally attired couple who look like they’d fit right in at a wax museum. The message is: decadence, exhaustion, etiolation, but it’s delivered with the kind of sardonic wit that rescues it from fatuous moralizing. The perspective in this photograph almost mimics that of the portrait in the background, which Barney positions as the spectator for her scene of luxury and absurdity.

A nice title for a Barney miniseries would be “Living with Art.” Diane, Mark and Tim, 1982, shows some cute but bratty-looking kids moping around a rather fancy living room. Barney’s camera angle lends this scene an extreme foreshortening that mimics the spatial weirdness of the painting hanging in the background. Diane, sprawled on the carpet in the foreground, gets the worst of it: the lower half of her body is grotesquely enlarged and distended. In her blue Laura Ashley-esque frock, the poor girl looks like Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have just as she began to suffer the ill effects of the “Drink Me” potion.

Mark and Tim’s expressions are tight, controlled, contained. Diane by contrast seems dazed, almost slack-jawed. The uncertain emotional tenor of many of Barney’s photographs seems to oscillate between willed unexpression and glazed stupefaction. She often achieves this tension formally, as in The Landscape, 1988, in which the distracted figures radiate centrifugally from a point of fixed attention—the smirking face of the young woman at the center of the composition. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe this subject as a heroine out of the pages of Henry James or Edith Wharton (though the reference suggests the literary equivalent of the classy WASP milieu Barney depicts), but at least she evinces a smidgen of amused self-consciousness that contrasts with the distraction of the tubby men and flaxen tot. This picture suggests the downside of a summer weekend in Watch Hill—stifling, bland torpor. The landscape painting of the title sums up the scene—it’s an emblem of tasteful decor, and utterly mediocre. As readers of The Official Preppy Handbook know, WASPs prize discreet, tasteful mediocrity. It’s the not-specialness of it all that makes them—so special.

Though most of Barney’s photos have the offhand, candid look of snapshots, in fact she works hard posing her sitters for just the right compositional effect. This probably accounts in part for the expressions of studied boredom on the faces of many of her subjects. Certainly, the almost subliminal register of artifice that results, coupled with the large scale she favors for her prints, has much to do with the uncanny effect of her art. In spite of Barney’s claims for the historical and ethnographic significance of her work—remember the vanishing-life-style lament—what she is actually shows us is unredeemed mundanity. Although she poses her subjects for the special, privileged meanings exalted by the history painter (or by documentary photographers after the manner of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans), she ends up showing the paucity of experience, a sense of life lived not as a series of decisive moments but rather as a random accumulation of shrunken ones. Shrunken, not empty: emptiness has too much of a metaphysical sheen, and as such still preserves a certain kind of grandeur, albeit a negative one. The overall effect isn’t so much depression as grudging disappointment—Chekhovian without the wistfulness.

David Rimanelli is a writer who lives in New York.