GrandLife Interviews: Tim Barber
Grand Life: Let’s talk a bit about your most recent book, Welcome To Earth.
Tim Barber: Welcome to Earth came out about a year ago. It was in correlation with a show I did in Tokyo at the gallery YUKA TSURUNO. A collector there owns a printing press and offered to print a catalog for the show a few weeks prior so I scrambled and got it together. I didn’t really know what to expect and I thought it was going to be more like a zine. I got there and it was this beautifully bound, beautifully printed book. It was a nice surprise.
GL: Well, that’s very Japanese.
TB: It’s totally Japanese of them to pull that off. We only did 100 at first and then we ended up ordering a bunch more.
GL: And the second event was here in New York with Dashwood Books?
TB: Yeah, it was to take advantage of the pop-up space they were doing in SoHo [with GQ magazine]. My friend Jason Nocito co-published a book with Dashwood and we decided it would be fun to do a combined book signing as a way to hopefully move some books and meet some people.
GL: You are getting more and more involved with films and directing, especially with the fashion photo shoots that you are involved with. It seems that there is often someone doing a behind the scenes video montage on these shoots—are these produced to help promote the piece in the magazine?
TB: It’s more and more the standard these days. It depends on how involved I am with the shoot. Sometimes I won’t have anything to do with it, but when I’m interested and when there’s time, I like to be involved in that process. What I’ve been trying to do more recently is not make them behind the scenes videos, but make them independently functioning and more like abstract video pieces. Doing all the pre-production work is always the hardest part so if you have a shoot already happening, it’s nice to be able to take advantage of it. You have hair and makeup and stylists there. I’m a fan of abstract experimental video so it’s fun to have that freedom and be able to just play around and see what you can come up with without having a script. I’ve also been doing more commercial directing this past year. Doing actual ads and little video pieces, which again, is just kind of a natural progression from taking photos.
GL: The Terence Koh x Opening Ceremony video was great. The music was perfect, it’s just like the music that plays when you open a jewelry box and a ballerina spins.
TB: Yeah, it’s just like a music box. The story behind that is we met up with Terence at his apartment and he was busy when we got there, so we waited for him for about a half hour in this room and that song was playing on loop. It’s this big empty room that’s all black with nothing in it, no furniture and just these two amazing white cats walking around. I think he was just playing it for his cats. So that was in my head and we were like, “well, that’s obviously the song that we have to play for the video.” We couldn’t get the rights to that recording because it’s a really old song, a Chopin song, so we got my friend to re-record it and he was able to match the sound, that music box sound, which was really nice.
GL: The German magazine (Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin) also did a video…
TB: Yeah, I had nothing to do with that, but I love that one. She [Sarah Beckhoff] did an amazing job.
GL: It adds a lot to the piece when you look at the photos after seeing the video. You get a sense of the full story.
TB: There were so many more photos than what I ended up showing. It gets edited down and edited down. That video was really nice. Again, I would have loved to have made that myself, it just wasn’t possible.
GL: A lot of the commercial work that you are doing tends to be very artistic and personal in nature. Do these two types of work have an affect on each other? For example, do you find that the commercial work affects your personal work or do you try to keep them very separate?
TB: I think everything affects everything I don’t try to keep it different. I don’t really have a strategy in that way. If anything, I’m trying to make the commercial work feel more personal because that’s kind of my aesthetic, that’s kind of my thing. I don’t think I have to try to make my personal work less commercial.
GL: Right, it doesn’t really work vice versa
TB: Yeah, it doesn’t really work that way.
GL: I can certainly see your handprint in a lot of the commercial work you do. I was looking at some of your work for Urban Outfitters that included photographs of girls on a wide-open sand dune and I thought, that’s very much a Tim Barber photo, that’s his aesthetic. I can look at it and know it’s your work. To me it seems that they are married, that the commercial stuff is very personal.
TB: I think when it’s successful it is. People always ask me how I make my commercial shoots look so real and natural and the answer is that they are real and natural. We’re not faking it; we’re actually having fun and getting involved in real things.
GL: It makes me wonder about the relationship between the primary models you’re working with and you as the photographer—as in what type of relationship you want to exist, and how you like the vibe to be on set in order to get that feel because it’s not something that’s easy to obtain.
TB: It’s not and it’s different every time. I’m often asked what I look for in a model and it’s really about confidence and feeling at ease and comfortable with whatever is going to happen. That’s always the most important thing to me. It’s way more important than how they look. It’s more that they’re comfortable and confident and can be spontaneous and have a good time and be authentic. So when I’m lucky, it goes well. Other times it’s something else. It’s more about light or creating a mood with a story, not so much about action or reality. It’s more of a sculpted fantasy, which is sort of the other side of making pictures.
GL: The Wildflower shoot for Muse Magazine kept coming up when I was looking through your work online. It seems like that shoot in particular really resonated with people. When you are doing a project like that, do you ever have the feeling that you’ve nailed it?
TB: It was definitely a magical couple of days. We shot that in two days and it was just a perfect storm. We traveled a lot, covered a lot of ground, a lot of different weather happened, we got very different light and many different extremes. It was all shot in LA and Twentynine Palms. We drove pretty much the entire length of Mulholland Drive, which is an amazing road and has such a huge variation in landscape. Beyond all that, it was just that [the model] Bambi was so awesome. She looked so amazing and she just fit perfectly in the landscape and in the story. I think that’s really what resonates with people, that relationship. Maybe I should have said this before, but what I try and do is to tell the story of a relationship between a person and the landscape that they’re in, whatever that may be. The setting is equally as important as the model. There has to be a symbiotic relationship there. I think with that story it really worked. It’s also just the California dream. Everybody loves that.
GL: What do you want people to see when they look at a Tim Barber photograph?
TB: Well, first of all, it depends on what it is because I take a lot of different photos of a lot of different things. I think the experience I want people to have would be a sense of wonder, a curiosity. I want people to be able to fall into the picture and think about what’s beyond the photo. Maybe what happened before or what’s going to happen after. I want it to feel experiential.
GL: Here’s a random music question: the music journalist Lester Bangs was reportedly listening to The Human League’s Dare when he died. When you pass on, what album or what type of music would you like to be listening to?
TB: Oh, I don’t think I’d want to be listening to music at all. I’d want to be listening to like, birds chirping or something (laughing). Or just silence.
GL: The question does imply that you are going to be dying in some sort of peaceful, maybe even pre-meditated way, which is quite an assumption.
TB: Not that I ever would, but if I was going to kill myself I would never have music playing.
GL: No Brian Eno or Elliott Smith?
TB: Ha, no, definitely not. I love all that but … it’s funny, I was talking about this the other day. When I was a kid I used to listen to music when I went to sleep every night, it was my standard thing to have music playing when I fell asleep and now I can’t imagine doing that.
I think my point is that I’d like to be very present in the moment and I think music is kind of a distraction from that. They can co-exist but I think I would like to be more focused on dying (laughing). (GL: trying to go into the next world peacefully). Yeah, or consciously. I would like to be like, thinking about it.
GL: Moving onto more present and grounded things, where do you want to see Tiny Vices in five years?
TB: That is a very timely question because I am just about to re-launch Tiny Vices, re-designed and re-conceptualized. Long story short, I started it in 2005 as this kind of random project, not really knowing what it was going to turn into or what potential it had. 2005 was before Facebook and Tumblr and Twitter so people had websites, but it was little bit less common for people to have their own websites. The web was just taking off as a place to share images and artwork and ideas.
The world has changed since I started the site. I used to have to do everything. I monitored the entire site by myself because I’ve never really had a partner or anything. It was this curatorial project and process that I enjoyed, but it just snowballed and became way too much for me to handle. I started doing exhibitions and publications and really going for it and then I realized that it was just taking over my life and I really wanted to focus on being a photographer. So I put it on hold for a couple years ago and thought it’s fine just as an archive, it can just sit there and if I ever want to come back to it I can.
Then just this year, I started thinking about it again, kind of missing it. The reason I originally set it up was because I was lacking a source for kind of consistent inspiration and excitement about contemporary photography and artwork. There are plenty of platforms for those things, but none of them that fit what I was interested in. I started thinking about it some more and I decided to redesign it and open it up to enable all the artists involved to update their own content, which takes it out of my hands. The down side is that the site is going to lose its super tight cohesiveness, but the upside is that it can continue on living and evolving and changing. I’m still curating the group; it’s not open to the public, but the way it’s designed will allow me to invite new people to join in really easily so it can grow. I’m really excited about it.
It’s an experiment as it’s always been, so I don’t really know what to expect, but I think if people use it, it will be a really lively place to share and look at new stuff. There’s going to be an integrated calendar on the site that will act as a global art calendar, which also doesn’t exist as far as I know. There’s definitely places where you can go but… (GL: So people can upload events and link images to it). Exactly. I’ve always been very obsessed with design and website interfaces and I think this one’s going to be really nice.
GL: As a professional photographer, how do you feel about embracing Instagram?
TB: Instagram was part of the inspiration for this redesign—that and Tumblr and Facebook and all these other things that are generating content where people are posting things online. I love Instagram; I think it’s the best thing. It’s kind of built into our society now, this idea of making things and sharing them online. I really don’t like Facebook. I respect it, but I don’t like looking at it, it just seems like a mess to me. Part of my inspiration for re-doing Tiny Vices was to make it a cleaner platform for content that was being shared on those existing platforms. Instagram and Twitter are going to feed into Tiny Vices, if people want them to, and we’re talking about some other things. So essentially, I’m trying to source in what people are doing already, as well as their fine art and whatever else they might be interested in sharing.
GL: I think it’s good that you’re bringing in all those elements as opposed to seeing it as a separate piece, because like you said, it’s really integrated into peoples lives at this point. Do you use Instagram as an inspiration tool for your work?
TB: Sure, just like anything. There’s amazing stuff on there. Some of it very intentional, some of it not so much, but it doesn’t matter really. There are people like Daniel Arnold who are just amazing at it.
GL: When is Tiny Vices going to re-launch?
TB: Hopefully in October, if it all goes well.
GL: Are you working with different people to develop it?
TB: I work with a web development company called Gin Lane. This will be the third time I’ve re-designed Tiny Vices, and the second time doing it with them. I’m the designer and they kind of flesh it out. I’m super excited about it because, you know, that was a big part of my life for a long time and I’m psyched to bring it back. So we’ll see what happens, I think it has the potential to be really cool.
GL: It does, best of luck.