Tim Barnwell Speaks of Exhibition

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Photographer Tim Barnwell joined us last week for our Art Break to talk about his exhibition Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia. This awesome display of black and white photos is an exploration of folk crafts and music. Barnwell took the time to give us a behind-the-camera look at his collection.

Barnwell said when the project culminated he knew he wanted to capture the functional crafts that people of Appalachia created – the types of hand made crafts that stretch far back in time and are considered by some a dying art. He said he always seeks subjects to photograph that have weight and substance and that will develop layers of meaning for different viewers.

Barnwell sought subjects in varying crafts and music and traveled from East Raleigh, North Carolina to Nashville, Tennessee and Lexington, Kentucky. Some of the photos in the exhibition include Doc Watson, John Hartford, Etta Baker, Jerry Douglas and Ralph Stanley Sr. Portrayed are other craftsmen creating pottery, woven baskets and blacksmithing.

The captivating photographs were not always easy to come by, though. Barnwell said the biggest challenge was figuring out how create a portrait that would honestly speak of that person. He decided the best way to accomplish that was to capture them in their own workspace and environment, allowing them to feel comfortable. He would often make multiple trips to visit some of the subjects in order to develop trust and understanding before he photographed them.

One of my favorite photos is of Ralph Stanley Sr. and his grandson. Although it looks like a simple portrait of a man and his grandson, the story is much deeper. Barnwell said Stanley is quite a serious man and it was very difficult to capture captivating pictures of him that Barnwell felt showed the essence of who Stanley was. It wasn’t until Stanley’s grandson came to visit that a smile crossed his face and he lit up for the camera. Barnwell was pleased to capture a touching moment between a famous musician and his family.

One of Barnwell’s goals is to strip away society’s expectations of portraiture exemplified by contemporary photos of celebrities. He said people are so used to seeing pictures of celebrities, but not knowing any information about the person in the picture. In Barnwell’s photos, viewers already know the backgrounds of the subjects while the photograph weaves a story.

Understanding an artist is the key to understanding an artist’s work. Just as Barnwell had to understand his subjects, we also learned more about him! At the Art Break, we learned there is more to his photos than people creating crafts and music – it is a celebration of traditional art that is slipping away before us.

Here is the link to a podcast series of Barnwell’s Art Break talk