Visiting with Craig J. Barber

Mekong Central
Mekong Central

We Entered Through the Back
We Entered Through the Back

We Were Each Questioning
We Were Each Questioning

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“For me it is important to get to know a place in an intimate way. When I work I am very slow, I like to look around the corners and behind the doors at the small, quiet details that make up the cultural landscape.”

Recently, Without Lenses spoke to Craig Barber, a speaker at the recent f295 Symposium held in Pittsburgh, about his work and his new book, Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited.

Erin Malone: Who and what inspires you as an artist?

Craig Barber: Actually, there are several: Paul Caponigro, Edward Weston, Frederick Sommers, Edward Hopper, Thomas Hart Benton, Annie Dillard, Olivia Parker and waking up every morning.

What’s your favorite non-photography thing to do?

Go to films, read good literature and enjoy my family and friends.

How did your interest in photography begin?

It just happened. I loved taking photos as a kid, never thought anything of it except that I liked it, was drawn to it, and just kept going from there. It was a very natural progression.

What led you to working with pinhole?

I was at a point in my photographic life where I wanted to make a change and remembered back to a class I took in school that involved the pinhole camera. I was living in Seattle at the time and came up with an idea where the pinhole was central. My intent was to work on the project for a year or so and then return to a “normal” camera. I never did do the project, went off in a different direction, but embraced the pinhole and never looked back. That was over 20 years ago.

What type of camera do you use? Homemade, a modified or store bought?

Mine are handmade from cardboard, gaffers tape, felt and a pie pan.

What format do you shoot?

I shoot a variety of formats. Ghosts… my diptichs and triptichs were made with a combination of 2 or 3 – 8″ x 10″ negatives; The Other New York series is shot with a 12″ x 20″: and my Prague work is shot with a 8 1/2″ x 14″. I use sheet film, both Tri-x and HP5.

Do you process your own work?

Most definitely. I tray process the film and my prints are all platinum/palladium prints.

Your use of pinhole in the Vietnam images, essentially erase the people. This ghostly approach is loaded with implied meaning… was this a planned approach or did it evolve as you made the images?

It definitely evolved, but the idea of ghosts felt like the perfect metaphor for my ghosts, America’s ghosts and Vietnam’s as well.

How long were you in Vietnam to make this series?

I went back three different times and each of them for an extended period of time. The first time I ventured to SE Asia was for nearly four months and the last time for three.

What drew you back to explore and work on this series?

I served there in the 1960’s as a combat marine and this was an opportunity to be able to revisit a land that had a profound effect upon my life and to be able to come to terms with it. I always remembered it as a beautiful land that I wanted to return to, just didn’t think it would take me 28 years to do so. I consider the work I did there, to be a visual diary, hence the title: Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited.

Do you plan your thematic works in advance or do they evolve?

Both. Vietnam was planned, but all of my other projects evolved in more serendipitous ways. Serendipity plays a large part in my work.

How often do you visit a place? Do your series come from a long visit or repeat visits over a long period of time?

My projects are always long term and I generally make several long visits. I have never been very good at just dropping in, photographing and leaving. For me it is important to get to know a place in an intimate way. When I work I am very slow, I like to look around the corners and behind the doors at the small, quiet details that make up the cultural landscape.

For the book — how many images did you make and how many ended up in the book?

I don’t remember exactly how much film I shot, but a fair amount. I edited quite a bit and 46 are in the book. While we could have put more images in there, it felt more articulate to use fewer verses overwhelming the viewer with redundancy; most books are a bit too long, in my opinion.

Was making the book a good experience? Would you do it again?

Both making the book and the traveling exhibition that accompanies it were very positive experiences. Nan Richardson at Umbrage Editions (my publisher), Tanja Geis (the designer) and Amy Deneson (the publicist) were just great. And Alison Nordstrom at the George Eastman House (who are traveling the exhibition) was fantastic. She wrote the essay in the book and was very instrumental in helping this entire project move forward. From the first day Alison saw the work she was on board. The entire project was one of agreement; everyone believed in it, we all wanted it to happen, and we made it happen. I know that this sort of cooperative spirit runs a bit contrary to the normal tales you hear about in the publishing world, but it could not have been a more fitting end to my Vietnam journey; it seriously contributed to the healing process. Would I do it again… can’t wait!!!

What’s your next project?

I am working on a portrait of the Catskill region of New York State (and beyond). My working title is “The Other New York”. And I am also working on a project in Prague, where I have been teaching for the past couple of years.