In every family, traditional portraits are hung up or carried around: cousins arrayed before a monument, parents holding their grandchildren, long-gone ancestors smiling from a black and white beyond. Though we cherish their aura, the faces and places remain static.
By contrast, Rachel Barrett composes images that could be candid or staged, but we often cannot guess which. Her portraits are sometimes not even of people. In projects as seemingly clinical as her NYC Newsstand Project, born of a desire to document the soon-to-be homogenized newsstands sprinkled across Manhattan, we find a loving portrait of an icon glowing in its snowflake-like singularity. In Bowery and Pell SW Corner, 2011, we see a shed with the battered face of a retired fighter, all swollen angles and bent supports. The sweet rust-red lacquer of Chrystie & Grand Streets, NW Corner, 2009 reaches out lovingly to grasp its green awninged neighbor in friendship. Even the shabbier newsstands stand proudly, as though their position and usefulness in this city affords them strength.
Barrett’s evocative Bolinas series, images both sweet and scarred, depicts off-the-gridders erect with promise and the queer ache of hard-fought independence. Solitary figures like Helene have the proud look of Walker Evans’s Depression-era portraits, yet Barrett’s subjects communicate joy despite having chosen lives beyond the reach of any material luxury. Cassie could be resting after hard labor in the field or be in labor with child; the sepia and amber are the hues of a previous era. Bolinas’s gnarled coastline and unkempt thickets mimic its inhabitants. Carved out and made useful, the tree and shed of Barrett’s Kale Road is emblematic of this existence. And no place is Eden if the forest of God’s Eye will not suffice.
Often shot from some less obvious angle, Barrett’s work allows us to take a close appraisal of each space as though we, the viewers, are hidden. This allows us to see subjects safely, without feeling caught by an unsettling gaze; the spaces reveal themselves to us. Each image exists as a document and also a portrait; a bare fact and all the warmth or heat through which a loved one is seen by her or his beloved.
Rachel Barrett (b. 1981) is a Brooklyn based fine art photographer.
Jeff Bergman is currently Associate Director at Pace Prints in Manhattan.