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So The Conversation Goes

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Tina Barney and Larry Sultan dish on photography and family

Attendees of the opening lectures for the Art Institute of Chicago’s “So the Story Goes” exhibition had the opportunity to witness a conversation between photographers Tina Barney and Larry Sultan regarding their artistic practices over the past decades. The formal dialogue between the two highlighted similarities between their works, particularly their common interests in family and the representation of everyday experience.

“I longed for something intimate,” Sultan said, “but revelatory of photography’s shenanigans.” Citing a Reagan-era, idealized conception of the family, he hoped to simultaneously capture this intimacy while alluding to its constructed nature. Describing himself as a “postmodernist family guy,” he located the conflict in his work between documentary photography and emotion. He described one of his works, “Mom posing by green wall and Dad watching T.V.” (1991) contextually as evidence of these themes. While posing for Sultan’s photograph, his father grew impatient and sat down in his favorite chair to watch television. Frustrated, his mother gave him “that look,” which became the focus of the photograph. This moment, Sultan asserted, demonstrates the privilege of the photographer in capturing a family member. “They’re willing because they care about you [the photographer],” he stated, ultimately creating a private moment that the photograph renders public.

Barney seemed to feel less nostalgic about her photographic practice. Although she similarly hoped to investigate the idea of family, she seemed more comfortable than Sultan with the inherencies of documentary photography, asserting that most of her subjects were “indifferent.” Additionally, she described an interest in looking at her subjects outside of their social context. “I didn’t think about politics for a second,” she stated. It was the relationships interior to her family, particularly the observation of tension, which interested Barney most. Unlike Sultan, she found the vulnerability of photography to be an asset rather than a liability. “Every portrait has consequences,” she stated. “Photographers make people come to their own reflection on subjects.” This statement, perhaps, can be seen as a summation of the developing differences revealed in this conversation between two divergent yet complimentary artists.

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