The group exhibition Peeled will be opening this Wednesday. It features the work of three artists who have looked through the lens of a camera and created images that depict the world as they see it.
One of the artists in Peeled is the Brooklyn based fine art photographer, Rachel Barrett. A 2012 Wassaic Project Artist-in-Residence, Barrett is a recipient of the 2011 Tracey Baran Award, 2011 PDNs 30 and 2010 Tierney Fellowship in addition to numerous other awards and honors for her personal work. Internationally exhibited, she is a studio artist at The Invisible Dog Art Center, a freelance contributor for The New York Times and an Assistant Professor of Digital Imaging at Kingsborough Community College. I had the opportunity to ask Rachel a few questions about her process and the work from the series “Josiah’s Farm,” which she will be showing in Peeled. Here is what she had to say.
Q: What is your artistic background? How did you arrive at this particular body of work?
I am a photographer. I prefer to work with film and have been shooting with the same Mamiya 7II, a medium format camera, for well over a decade. I moved to New York City in 1999 to study at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, which is where I received my BFA in Photography & Imaging in 2003. I apprenticed for a few artists and then continued my studies to pursue my own work at the School of Visual Arts, where I received my MFA in Photography, Video & Related Media in 2008.
My process and practice has shifted and changed in numerous ways over the last 13 years. Early work was black and white and quite formal in nature. I only began working in color in 2005, and the earliest images from this series, “Josiah’s Farm” began shortly thereafter in the fall of 2006 just as I began graduate school. At that time I did not have this project in mind and it in fact evolved itself over the nearly five years in which I was making it. Josiah, the central focus of the work, was someone I had known peripherally since I first moved to the city. By circumstance he became the caretaker for this property in the Catskills and he extended an invitation to visit. From there our friendship and this work developed.
Q: Tell us about the work you will exhibit in Peeled.
“Josiah’s Farm” is in many ways an exploration of identity, looking into the ways young individuals shape their understanding of self within the context of coherence among others and among the land. This is a series of color photographs that focuses on Josiah Early, a young man raised by a Mennonite minister in farming towns in Virginia and Pennsylvania. In late 2006 Josiah, his best friend Ezekiel and fellow childhood friends began cultivating the land and what I saw as their own versions of masculinity on a large property in a small Catkskills town. This place became Josiah’s domain where he and these boys were set free while reconciling with becoming men. I wanted to explore what happens when we are compelled to leave our urban lives for an intrinsically rural and shared existence and how our relationship to a place defines who we are and how we actively take a role in defining the place itself.
Q: How does your work speak to the exhibition’s theme—that art “makes visible” rather than merely reproducing the visible?
Photography is about ideas. For me the camera is a means to visually investigate, and the resulting photographs allow us to see the world in ways we have not before. Or at least to think about things differently, if we are successful in our endeavors.
Q: Does your work tell a story? If so, what story are you telling?
My work does tell stories and those stories, as mentioned, are very much grounded in the real life experiences I am photographing—of these young men choosing to create an alternative path in life. But the work is not “documentary” and so it is not so much about telling the life stories of my subjects. To that extent I mean that I want these stories to transcend their realities and extend beyond. Narratives come through but not in a linear form and I think that helps to open up the work to be more accessible.
Q: In many of your photographs there is an eerie sense that one cannot see the entire story, that there is always something left slightly obscured. There is an unresolved tension whose source seems just out of reach. Can you talk about the role of visibility, absence and presence in your work?
I love the idea of an image referring to something you cannot quite place. A moment has just happened or is just about to happen. We feel the presence of a person but as described through their absence. I love the way a photograph is a trace of a moment and evokes that sentiment—tangible and entirely intangible all at once. An important aspect of what makes an image compelling for me is not quite being able to figure it out, or fully understand what I am looking at. The viewing experience itself should be taken into consideration in the process of creating and executing the work, so that the exhibition pushes the viewer to look deeper, think further and raise questions instead of answering them.
Q: How does time affect your photographs?
I love the dual role time plays in photography, that the image is a brief and specific moment, captured, frozen—and it then loses specificity to have a sense of timelessness; the moments will go on forever and never be again. That is where nostalgia and memory come into play in regards to my motivations and love of images. But time plays another role in my works, especially when looking at/photographing a place and the same subjects repeatedly over the course of many years. The passing of time gets recorded in various ways. We see the seasons change. We see people age. We see a house take form into a home. But I do not sequence my images chronologically or according to any sense of time or timeline. Rather, I like to pair images and sequence photographs to evoke a narrative that expresses the feeling of the place and expresses the feeling of these experiences.
Q: Can you tell us some more about your process? How do you attain that particular atmospheric quality that characterizes so many of your photos?
“Josiah’s Farm” was created over six years. In that time many things shift and evolve. My visits to the farm varied in length, usually weekends. The frequency of my visits would vary depending on what else what going on in our respective personal lives and our relationship with one another. But once there, nothing was ever planned or staged. I like to allow my surroundings to inform what I photograph, when and how, so that all these moments are organic. While the narratives that get told can take on many forms everything is rooted and grounded in reality. Atmosphere is not easy to attain. I made a real effort to pay attention to all the details of the place, down to the ground beneath my feet, the nuances of my subjects and the light itself. All the little things that often get overlooked are what, when collectively combined, create the strong sense of atmosphere and place.
Q: What do you see as the most important part of your work? What do you want the viewer to take away?
I don’t know if I can say there is an aspect that is the most important. Ultimately photography is about a visual revelation, so that we see something we have never seen before, or in a way we have never seen it or experienced it. So that idea relates directly to the viewer. Everyone has their own relationship to images and what they will take from the work will directly correlate to who they are. But that they feel like they are seeing or feeling or learning something new or different, that is the goal – to be able to activate that experience.
Q: How has the recession impacted your art?
As a working artist living in New York it is impossible to deny the impact of the recession on my everyday life. I cannot say if it has directly impacted the content of my art but it has certainly impacted my ability to create my work. My costs are steadily increasing, as prices for film and chemicals continue to rise—though my price point for selling my work has remained the same for many years. It is inevitable that film will be discontinued and/or that the labs will struggle to be able process the film. That may be years away but it is a future with which I must reconcile.
All images courtesy of Rachel Barrett. Come see her work at the opening of Peeled this week, October 10, 6-10pm. RSVP on Facebook! Also, keep your eyes peeled for interviews with the other two Peeled artists.