Image gallery from David Barnes's body of work "in solution".
The question of how contemporary life, with all its complexities, might be represented photographically is one that admits no easy answer. It often seems as if the conventional forms of documentary practice struggle to account for the divergent experiences and situations that define a rapidly changing world. The work of David Barnes is an interesting example of how photography can be used to address those complexities, not least by broadening the palette of approaches that a ‘documentary’ photographer might be willing to use. His multi-layered, long-term projects examine the many factors that have shaped life in his native Wales. Most often these projects consist of different, overlapping stands or chapters that outline a sort of composite social portrait, concentrating in particular on communities undergoing some degree of transition between different forms. Community in its many elaborations is perhaps the essential subject of Barnes’ work, but it is not one that he has a static conception of; however sympathetic this work might be, it nonetheless takes a long view of the historical shifts that are obviously taking place, seeing change not just as loss, but also as the opportunity for new types of community to emerge. Some strands of the work find Barnes studying particular groups or organisations, while others take a more impressionistic approach, freely mixing stylistic vocabularies and techniques. In the following conversation, we discuss the background to David’s practice, his relation to the documentary tradition and the specific challenges of his uniquely engaged work.
Darren Campion (DC). Can you give us a little background to your work as a photographer and some background to this work ‘in solution’ in particular?
David Barnes (DB). I’ve made photographs seriously since studying Documentary Photography in Newport, Wales in 1998. Initially I pursued my projects alongside editorial work, but in the last ten years I’ve consciously moved away from commercial photography to focus on my practice as an artist. It would be fair to say I’m obsessed by the ongoing process of making pictures, films, collecting, and generally being active in the community.
The ‘in solution’ work that we’re discussing here is drawn from a number of commissions that I’ve been working on in south Wales over the last four years and from other ideas that that didn’t fit in to those commissions. Several organisations, including Ffotogallery, the Arts Council of Wales and some local authorities have supported the work. An important aspect has been the series of exhibitions and workshops I’ve staged as the work has been developing. This has enabled the conversations and collaborations that are an essential part of all my projects, but institutional support has allowed this to be particularly developed this time and for the work to have a real physical presence in the communities.
The resolution of the work was an exhibition at Ffotogallery, Turner House in Penarth (near Cardiff). In this I tried to bring together some of the themes in the work in an interesting way, to explore wider ideas. It was also an opportunity to show some of the video and installation pieces which haven’t always been possible in the other exhibitions.
D.C. While you're obviously interested the 'real' world, taking on subjects that might be more associated with the traditions of documentary photography, at the same time you're also making use of strategies that might be more familiar in the realm of art photography. So what do you see as being your relationship to these respective traditions?
D.B. I see myself as working in a documentary tradition certainly. I would argue that in its evolution, it’s possible to see many examples of practices that push what documentary is and can be. I often come back to the Walker Evans’ quote about 'documentary style’ photography, which seems to signal a liberation from proof, or indexicality, in its most literal sense.
Robert Frank’s The Americans is a great example of a project that is now perhaps seen as quite traditional, yet for me it is a pure ‘art’ project that moves way beyond what we might think of as the limitations of ‘photo-journalism’. Indeed, it could be conceived as ‘conceptual’ in many ways. It uses metaphor, suggestion, allusion, yet is firmly rooted in the real. In all aspects of realist practice we can find bodies of work that are more successful in engaging with the complexity of lived experience than others. In many ways, I think it’s more productive to talk about specific bodies of work rather than traditions, although I appreciate its necessary, and often interesting to consider them.
Mine is a fairly straight approach in many ways; its fundamentally rooted in a sustained connection with community, going out and speaking to people, and trying to make simple pictures. But it is trying to be sophisticated in its response, because the world, culture, and real lives are incredibly complex, multi-layered and often contradictory. Photography is incredibly limited in many ways – it leaves so much out – but that is precisely the thing that intrigues and draws me back again and again.
D.C. Perhaps it's also the case that these different traditions have never been as 'pure' as they tend to appear retrospectively, and that this mixing of genres has always been a productive resource for artists to draw on. But I'm curious if those strategies are something imposed on the situations you encounter or if they evolve in a more intuitive way?
D.B. I think although there are historical precedents for it within documentary, you are right in your comment about explicit mixing of genres, or approaches, being relatively new in documentary and more the ground of fine-art practices. Photographers are certainly doing this more now, and I see this reflected in cross-disciplinary approaches used in other art forms as well. It can be liberating.
The lived experience is incredibly complex and perplexing. The devices and approaches I use to try and engage with this complexity, and the explicit mixing of forms and approaches is a key part of this. It’s not about trying to do a ‘little of everything’ though. It’s about trying to pursue a particular idea in a particular way, and then to connect to (in a dialogical or discursive way) the next idea, or to the aspects of the overall concept (not that there is a single concept). Behind some of the individual images in in solution there are entire ‘projects’ or particular ‘stories', but I might choose to use just one image, in dialogue or narrative connection with other images. It sometimes is intuitive, in response to a particular place, person or experience, certainly. But sometimes it is planned, researched, explicitly pursued and designed.
D.C. There are a number of subjects that recur throughout the work – I’m thinking, for example, of houses that appear to be abandoned, and also the paintings that feature in a number of images. What is it that draws you to particular subjects?
D.B. Without being specific about particular images, some of the elements that you refer to reflect my interest in inter-generationality and slow change in community. Many of the places and spaces pictured are in some ways in transition – houses that are being demolished, rebuilt or refurbished, or places in which historical ideas or practices meet the present day and the possibility of the future, such as museums, churches, community centres, pubs. I am also interested in the way we, as a society, ‘make’ culture, record history, and tell our own stories – and the ways in which more personal, informal versions of this can connect with, or indeed challenge more fixed versions of culture.
D.C. Despite the fact that this is, to me, a work about the breakdown of traditional bonds and values, marking where something has been lost due to social change, a word you often seem to return to in talking about it is, actually, community. What would you say is the significance of this idea, for the work and for you?
D.B. In south Wales the loss of heavy industry and the actions of the Tory government have been well documented. This resulted in huge changes to physical communities and is often represented as signalling a loss of tradition and values, but my experience tells me that the real situation is actually much more complex and harder to easily characterise. I would argue that in many instances particular communities are actually more connected. They establish, grow and adapt in new and unexpected places. In the context of renewed governmental challenges to established forms of community life, they often have no choice.
I was in the new ‘super hospital’ in my valley the other day – the community of people who work in that hospital is a real and functioning community. The same exists in the large Asda supermarket near me. So, I look at new forms of community as well as older and changing ones, and try to point to relationships and tensions that might exist in them.
I wouldn’t say the work is about anything as specific as the breakdown of traditional bonds and values, but about certain structures becoming more or less dominant. Traditions and values change, adapt, morph, and new ones emerge as others disappear.
At the end of the day, to whatever degree wider ideas, themes, or debates might underpin or motivate particular directions in the work, whatever questions the work might attempt to ask, what is really important here are the individual lives, material culture, communities and places with which every picture connects. The work is never intended to be polemic. On the contrary, it is about me searching in some ways, for answers, for suggestions, for solutions, perhaps (in another possible meaning of the project’s title) for community.
D.C. Raymond Williams is obviously a very significant influence for you – I'm wonder if you could say a bit more about how his idea of the 'emergent' in particular figures in your work?
D.B. Williams is a particular focus because of his sophisticated ways of thinking about cultural politics that implicate class, and to a lesser degree, Welshness. His novels about Wales are also important to me because of their subtle and insightful representation. One of the interesting ways Williams looks at the process of changing culture is in terms of what he calls the ‘residual’, ‘dominant’ and ‘emergent’ forms that exist, in tension, in the present. The ‘emergent’ is always seen in the present day in tension with the residual and dominant, so while there are ideas that are moving from being dominant to being residual, there are new forms that are emergent. I try to represent this tension in different ways in the work, sometimes in layers within specific images, so, for example, there are images of field boundaries and ditches that chart how modern agricultural processes mark the land and intersect with older processes, pictures from retail parks, portraits of young people. This also happens with sequencing and narrative relationships that I set up in the gallery space. Although it might be argued that my preoccupation with historical groups resonates more with the residual and dominant elements, I would say that the emergent is at play here too. Examples of this would be an image from a Freemason’s hall that includes a mask of Simon Cowell, and another that features a chef’s apron printed with masonic regalia.
D.C. Do you ever find that your own interests in making the work and the direction it takes come into conflict with the interests of the communities that you’re engaging with?
D.B. Not often. As I’ve said, the process of dialogue with the communities is a key aspect of making the work and, as I’ve said, this has been especially foregrounded by the series of exhibitions and workshops. I always work sensitively and slowly. I spend time, talk to people and seek meaningful collaboration. There is a very good level of engagement and understanding, even in what you could say are the most left field or conceptual aspects of the work.
There is sometimes some resistance from individuals or organisations with vested interests. For example, some businesses are very protective of a particular identity and PR agenda. To be honest, that’s not really a problem, because I have plenty of people, organisations and businesses that are interested in working with me. They are largely appreciative of my interest and commitment. Unfortunately, there are very few people doing what I do.
D.C. How do you see this work continuing in the future?
D.B. I have a number of strands and particular ideas that I feel need to be explored further. I’m slowly working through developing them. I suppose at this stage I’m looking for a sort of completeness to the expression of the structure of ideas that I have in mind. Most of the key elements are there, but there are gaps that need filling. I need to resolve the work further and the plan is to do a book. I’m in no rush, I enjoy the process of making the work.