Tina Barney

In this selection of her work from the past twenty years, Tina Barney invites us into the pastel preserves of America’s WASPs. The twenty-seven chromogenic color prints on view in “Photographic Tableaux: Tina Barney’s Family Album” display bedrooms and bathrooms, living rooms and kitchens, in which infants, teenagers, mothers, and fathers appear to be casually expending a surfeit of leisure time. In nearly every “episode”—all the images seem infused with a vague sense of narrative—the figures are preoccupied with some mundane activity: carrying a book or a puppy, scanning the Sunday Times, fixing a snack.

Almost every aspect of the photographs seems to facilitate our entrance into this world. As if to acknowledge our presence, the subjects, with names like Jill, Polly, and Marina, often face us head on, as does Barney herself in the double portrait Jill and I, 1993. Future is positioned accommodatingly, creating diagonals that draw us into each scene. while windows carry us outside to a yard in Jill and Polly in Bathroom, or up against a brick wall in Manhattan in The Son, both 1987. The swags and valances, trims and tassels, moldings and bed canopies define the compositions circumspectly; the pale color schemes harmonize with rosy cheeks and golden hair; and the languid pastorals on toile-du-Juoy draperies seem to validate the insular pastimes of the New England upper crust—the milieu to which Barney herself belongs. (It takes an insider, after all, to get the elite to let down its guard.)

Barney has been called a genius at genre. One of her notable innovations is the large format, a deft twist on the little Dutch genre paintings of the seventeenth century and the French “intimists” at the end of the nineteenth. She replaces the peephole with the view camera, which not only ensures that pinch pleats and porcelains are catalogued in perfect detail but—more enticingly—gives viewers the illusion of greater access. However, monitoring all this comfy clutter is the photographer’s insistent and characteristic obliqueness: We are always distanced from engagement, kept at bay as if by an invisible screen. Barney is really a master at deflection, a gatekeeper who never allows a story line to develop. She doesn’t divulge secrets, betraying neither her extended family nor her class. Encountering the inhabitants of her staged tableaux, we find them self-absorbed, isolated even from one another, as if enacting their own withdrawal from our intrusive gaze.

Barney has said that “how people treat each other is more interesting to me than the class they come from,” but her form of revelation itself becomes an act of class discretion, creating yet another layer separating “them” from “us.” In The Entrance Hall, 1996, the impeccably groomed dowager in Barbara Bush–style pearls is poised at the center of a bright turquoise foyer; she smiles graciously yet firmly blocks our access to the room. One can’t tell if she is in her own home (she is carrying a handbag), but she seems inexorably to belong here, perfectly framed by the elegant moldings on the walls. Barney’s camera angle appears to throw all this authority off balance by tilting everything slightly to the right, but the figure remains staunchly vertical, as if securely anchored by her lineage—not to mention a booming market and a surging Dow Jones average.

Joan Seeman Robinson