Not Your Typical Portrait

July 23, 2012

By RF Staff

Susan Barnett is on a mission—one that sometimes finds her chasing down her subjects on busy city sidewalks for blocks at a time. Since 2009, the fine-art photographer has been amassing a unique portrait portfolio of subjects she fondly calls her “kids.” What started as a chance photograph she took of the back of a dreadlocked young woman wearing a graphic t-shirt has turned into a bountiful typology that represents the diversity, adversity and optimism of a generation—even an illustration of American identity.

What Barnett realized when she developed that first image, which she had secretly taken, was that the t-shirt itself, peeking out from behind a backpack, was the story. Using a 35mm Ektar loaded with Portra Vivid Color film, and a heavy, 49-year-old Leicaflex SL2 that was once her father’s, she hit the streets of New York and L.A. searching for more t-shirted backs and image-conscious youth wanting their personal mantras heard (or in this case, read). As she was quick to find out, taking a revealing portrait of a subject doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be of one’s face.

“Good photography is a conversation; it sparks curiosity and questions,” explains Barnett, who, encouraged by her professional photographer father, started taking pictures as a child. Before embarking on her own fine-art career, she interned at the Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as a photo archivist, then enjoyed a 15-year career as an associate director at Perls Galleries on Madison Avenue. There, she found herself among works by artists such as Picasso, Braque, Modigliani, Leger and Matisse, and prepared exhibitions and catalogues for Alexander Calder. Additionally, she spent many lunch hours next door to Perls, at Light Gallery, among the works of contemporary fine-art photographers such as Steven Shore and Lee Friedlander. In 1990, she went back to school to study graphic design and computer-based photography at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Those hours spent indulging in the works of art legends definitely helped plant the seed for Barnett’s current-day photo series, aptly named “Not In Your Face.”

The 2,000 or so images of people’s backs that she has created in the last four years all have rich stories that are concurrently being told in the messages the subjects wear, as well as in their stance, demeanor, and other clothing items and accessories. The viewer, hindered by the lack of usual visual clues in a portrait because the subject’s face is excluded (hence the name of the series), is asked to engage in a dialogue as he or she attempts to deconstruct the image before him/her. As Barnett describes, the project “isn’t about the t-shirt per se,” but rather it is “about self-identity and validation. They wear a kind of badge of honor that says ‘yes, I belong to this group not the other.’ ”

Barnett’s images ask the viewer: What assumptions do we make when we can’t see the expression on someone’s face? What assumptions do we make based on the brand spelled out on the butt or in the unique stitching on a certain brand of jeans, or the way the pants hang low, boxer shorts exposed? As the photographer suggests, “various cultural identities are evident, not only with the message of the shirt, but with hairstyles, belts, jeans, tattoos and their personal stances.” On the streets these personalities create their own iconography that explores the cultural, political and social issues that have an impact on our everyday lives.

Barnett’s advantage when thinking about these and other questions sparked by the faceless portraits she creates, is that she often gets a chance to get to know her subjects. Of course, she first must “make friends” in order to get the shot. Her approach consists of an upbeat explanation of who she is and the gist of the project she’s working on. “It’s all about my energy,” explains Barnett; she knows not to push it. She is careful to respect where a person is in her or his day; it’s often easier on a Sunday when potential subjects are out strolling more leisurely.

The shoot can take anywhere from 2 to 15 minutes, and once she explains how she’d like to take the shot, subjects often pivot immediately, slouching (or straightening up) into their signature poses. Barnett finds it amusing that often a subject’s friend will be simultaneously taking a picture of her as she goes about her work. She also prefers to shoot only on clear days, relying on the sun as her flash and the blue sky as her background, as often as she can. “A blue sky means optimism,” she says, “and this generation is enormously optimistic.”

Barnett’s easy manner has many times encouraged her subjects to share their stories with her. “These kids are anxious to be seen,” she says, adding, “What nicer thing can you do to validate someone this way?” She contemplates that perhaps because she’s older, they don’t feel threatened by her presence, and therefore open up and relax their stances. In fact, she sometimes can tell—despite her view of the backs of their heads—that they’re smiling, pleased to be a model for her art. More often than not, the kids (as she calls them) are eager to share their views on life, explain the meaning of their attire, and “let her in” on their personal experiences. A few heartbreaking interactions with teens who were homeless, or even hungry, have led Barnett to pay for pictures. Although she doesn’t make a habit of it, she’s also not surprised when she’s asked for money in return for their cooperation. 

Barnett’s uncommon viewpoint is informed not only by the special bond she forms with her subjects, but also by the fact that she has had monocular vision ever since an accident in 2002 left her blind in one eye. It has been suggested that artists who have so-called “stereo blindness” have an edge over others because of their ability to translate what they see in the three-dimensional world onto a flat, two-dimensional canvas.
Barnett hesitates to accept that she has any advantage, but notes that her vision—both how she sees and what she sees—has been altered since her accident.

It took Barnett only weeks of capturing these images to realize that she had a unique take on the portrait that would make for an interesting typology, like the industrial structures created by Hilla and Bernd Becher in the 1960s. Her format is the same every time: she shoots each portrait from slightly below her subject, using a wide-angle lens, to “flatten them out” against the cityscape behind them. The proportions are the same, and she works to keep other bodies out of the shot. This specific layout, she explains, asks the viewer to “focus on what you’re seeing as a photographer.” 

On her website,, Barnett offers the images in groups of four, allowing the viewer to look at the portraits individually and to compare them to one another. Just as the Bechers’ images of structures are usually displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs based on function, regional idiosyncrasies, or the age of the structures, Barnett’s images invite us to study an iconography of our time: the messages contained within the t-shirts, as well as the surrounding details, which together reveal who is the subject of the portrait. 

In most cases, Barnett has discovered these t-shirts are donned for specific reasons—not simply to clothe a naked body. Sometimes the wearer is willing to share those reasons but not always, she says, giving as example the woman who seems to hide her identity beneath a red wig, wearing a t-shirt that says “Stop Violence Against Women.” She was willing to pose for the picture, but “she clearly didn’t want to talk about it,” the photographer says.

Shortly after capturing that image, Barnett came across a t-shirt that depicted a rape. The caption said “She asked for it.”  “It would have made a great pairing,” she says, “but I was appalled by the fellow and had personal reasons not to take it. We fought so hard in the Women’s Movement and I would have been validating his sentiment.” It was one of a few t-shirts that were too offensive to capture, she says.
Barnett’s first solo exhibition is currently on view at the Griffin Museum in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and her first solo exhibition in a commercial gallery, which opened on June 16, is at the DeSantos Gallery in Houston, Texas. The book Not In Your Face, will appear this year from the publisher Silas Finch, New York.

Allison Valencia is a freelance writer and copy editor for Rangefinder magazine, and is based out of Minneapolis, MN.