Tina Barney titled her exhibition, on view at Paul Kasmin Gallery until March 3, Landscapes. For a photographer known primarily for her photographs of human beings – namely, of New England’s upper crust – this feels like a departure. But upon closer inspection – which the large prints, taken with an 8×10-inch camera, invite – the photographs are more about a slice of America’s social landscape than a geographical one.
A few of the 11 images on view don’t include people, like an empty, lonely-feeling drive-in theater or a quiet street at dusk. But most feature a smattering of tiny subjects who stroll past sailboats, play tennis, march in high school bands or cheerlead, hang out at a beach, and gather at picnics and parades.
Barney tried her hand at shooting landscapes in the 1980s, but then largely abandoned the genre until recently. Photographs from both eras are included in this exhibition. Where her portraits feel both intimate and symbolic of the affluence of the 1980s, the images in Landscapes have a Norman Rockwell feel about them in their celebration of American traditions. A few cars and smart phones give clues to the eras during which these images were taken, but otherwise, little seems to have changed. Three decades may have passed since Barney created these landscapes, but, as we watch her subjects participate in various rituals, they appear to be frozen in time.
Unlike her portraits, there are no photographs taken inside people’s homes, so the opulence and other markers of wealth are absent. But in the context of the current social climate, including debates about wealth, privilege, race, and social status, these insulated small-town scenes feel out of touch. For better or worse, this series shows us a part of America that has never had to question how it fits into the landscape.