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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Richard Barnes

Architectural photography can be elegant, it can be an exercise in grace and fluidity, it can be dramatic…but it’s rarely considered to be exciting. It’s very precise and deliberate, as much craft as art. The purpose of architectural photography is to convey to a viewer the pure experience of being in and around a built environment. In the right hands, though, this form of photography can be exhilarating.

Richard Barnes has the right hands. He makes his living as a professional architectural photographer, but his work has ranged far outside the borders of that venue. He first came to public attention when he was hired by the New York Times to photograph the cabin of Ted Kaczynski…the Unabomber. Kaczynski, as many of you know, was responsible for a series of mail bombs that killed three people and wounded a couple dozen over a period of fifteen years. He lived in a small, hand-built cabin in a remote area of Montana. When Kaczynski was finally caught and arrested, the U.S. government seized his cabin. The entire cabin. It was removed from its foundation and shipped to an FBI storage facility on an Air Force base in Sacramento. It remains there today, an 11×13 foot shack belonging to a madman now condemned to live the rest of his life in an 8×12 foot cell.

For most of his career, Barnes had been required to photograph large, complex structures. This assignment required him to photograph what is essentially a single room. Seeing the cabin in the warehouse, Barnes said "Conceptually, the cabin in this white cube began to take on the aura of a piece of minimalist sculpture or art installation." Once removed from its original site, the cabin became a fetishized object…an object whose attraction is only tangentially related to its original purpose. Kaczynski’s cabin squats in that clean, white, empty space like some dark, cancerous, alien toad. It appears almost ominous. This series of photographs brought Barnes the Alfred Eisenstadt Award in Photography.


A few years later Barnes began a project which required him to photograph natural history museums in the U.S. and France. He began taking traditional architectural photographs…large scale representations depicting the grandeur of the rooms. As the project progressed, however, Barnes began to turn his eye to the elements within the room. He photographed the exhibits themselves, using the same cool, formal approach.

Rather than photograph the exhibits in their final state, however, he chose to show them as they were being prepared for display. That decision resulted in a series of photos that show, without any irony, the fabricated and artificial essence of all natural history museums. At the same time, however, the photographs are absolutely elegant.

A lifelike grizzly bear in an attitude of stalking while still contained within its shipping crate creates a delicious dichotomy. The museum has used all its skills to depict the bear in the most realistic way possible, to give the museum-goer some sense of the vitality of the bear…and yet, in this context, it is so clearly false that the eye is amused at the same time it is being pleased.


Even though his museum images are more intimate than most of his early work, they still retain the emotional distance and formality of traditional architectural photography. That’s relatively easy to do since structures and museum exhibits are inanimate. If there is one thing certain about a rustic cabin and a taxidermied bear, it’s this: they ain’t gonna move. Could Barnes use the same architectural approach with living creatures?

Starlings have binocular vision, which gives them an astonishing ability to focus on small, swiftly moving insects. For centuries, Rome has been plagued by massive flocks of these birds every fall and winter. In ancient Rome, the swirling flocks were used as a form of augury; priests and prognosticators would use them to determine the will of the gods.

What Barnes saw in these massive, ever-shifting flocks (called a ‘murmur of starlings’) was a sort of living pointillist abstract. On the surface, there is very little in common between traditional architectural photography and these amazing photographs of swarming birds. Yet Barnes brings to both subjects a similar artistic philosophy; both are treated with an almost clinical minimalism and an appreciation of form that approaches reverence.


"When I isolate an object," Barnes has said, "take it out of context by erasing the background, etcetera, I usually do it so I can free it from its history and give it a new voice." His series on the starlings of Rome is a perfect example of that philosophy.

Where most folks would look at the churning, wheeling mass of birds and see only fluid movement, Barnes sees raw form and organic structure. His photographs, in a sense, remove the birds from the flock; rather than photographing thousands of individual birds acting in concert, Barnes photographs the flock as a single entity, albeit one that is constantly shifting its shape.


In describing his work to one interviewer, Barne said, "The ambiguity of scale, space and representation, allows the viewer of my photographs to enter them on their own terms, draw their own conclusions, and then perhaps be surprised when they find out what they are really looking at." He was talking specifically about his work with the Unabomber’s cabin, but it applies to just about all of his work. In Barnes’ work, there is always a bit of surprise awaiting the viewer.