November 2013


Talking with Atlanta-native Jeannette Montgomery Barron about her photography, via Skype in Rome, was like talking to an old friend. A warm, voluble Southerner whose new book, Scene, captures her life in 1980s NYC as an aspiring portraitist, Jeannette shared her experiences in putting that book together, as well as her history as a photographer, with SXSE. The following answers to our interview questions offer our readers an insight into her creative process, but we wish we could capture the laughter and kindness that came through the computer screen!

SXSE: How long have you been in Rome?

JMB: Off and on for ten years; we’re back and forth a lot. I’ve always loved Rome, and I used to come here in my twenties, with friends. But it’s always been a place that’s really special for my whole family. It’s interesting; our kids went to school here. They were here when they were nine and thirteen, and they feel like it’s one of their homes.



SXSE: Do you and your husband work there? 

JMB: We do not work here at all. I create work here, but we both work out of the US.

SXSE: Where else do you live in the United States?

JMB: We have a house in Connecticut, but we rent it out. It’s a place we really want to keep for our family, but for now, it pays for our house here. When we go back, we rent apartments in New York, we stay with family, and we stay in hotels. It’s a good life; I feel very fortunate.

SXSE: When did you start taking photographs, and what was it that drew you to that particular art form? 

JMB: I think I had cameras always. Growing up, my dad was a complete camera/gadget addict, so he bought every new Polaroid, Polaroid Swinger. I had a Brownie, and then I got my first 35 mm camera when I was 15. I got a used Nikkormat or something. I think for me it was perfect, because I was always really shy, and I had something to – it gives you the reason to be talking to somebody. It’s a buffer.

SXSE: When did you decide you wanted to study it?

JMB: In high school, I decided I wanted to study photography, and I did. I went to ICP before it was accredited. The school ran out of a brownstone right off of Fifth Avenue [in New York City], and you couldn’t get a degree. But I went there for three years, and I took courses with various teachers. Toba Tucker was a really great teacher. She taught a class in portraiture, and that did something for me.

SXSE: What is it about portraiture particularly that appeals to you? 

JMB: I love people and I love their stories. I like trying to get something spiritual out of them, something a little bit deeper than just on-the-surface beauty or an interesting face or whatever. I try to pull something out of them. Yesterday I was on the street, waiting for a bus here, and I saw this interesting looking man. He had on white bell bottoms and a white linen jacket, and he had these really cool lace-up shoes, and he was really thinking deeply about something. I’m not good about approaching somebody on the street and saying, “Can I photograph you?” I didn’t do it, and I kick myself. Why couldn’t I ask him?

SXSE: Who in terms of photography were your early influences?

JMB: I looked at [Edward] Weston, all of those classic guys. Now I’m less fond of his work. Now I’m looking at more color photographers. Stephen Shore is my son’s teacher at Bard, and my son took large format camera last year. Now he’s studying color with Tim Davis. But [William] Eggleston – I’m all over the board. I really like a lot of photographers. I love Julia Margaret Cameron’s work. I like a lot of fashion photography. Irving Penn I loved.

SXSE: Did you ever do any fashion photography? 

JMB: I was approached to do it, and I did a little bit, along with one shoot for Comme des Garçons, and it was a great gig. They flew me to Paris and put me up in a nice hotel and paid me a lot of money. Then honestly, I just didn’t want to be away from my family. I wanted to be home, I wanted to be a mother, and I just started doing still life at home.



SXSE: Can you discuss your new book, Scene, for us? Why Scene? Why that title? 

JMB: That was my publisher’s recommendation, and I think it was a good idea. I think he wanted something really quick that sums it up – not just the art scene, but “scene.” Because it was a scene.

SXSE: It really is very moving, as it has to be for anyone who is interested in or who lived through the excitement and experimentation of the New York City art scene of the early 1980s. Your narratives for each photograph are terrific, too. What kinds of challenges did you face when you were going through your catalogue of images and memories? 

JMB: Yeah, well, I wanted to write them down before I forgot them! (Laughter.) Some of the stories – it was really hard to actually recall some of the portrait sittings, because nothing really remarkable happened. I went in, I took the picture, without any meaningful conversation. So those entries were harder to write. And then some of them were very memorable, like Bianca Jagger, Jean-Michel Basquiat. Those were amazing.

SXSE: I love what you said about Basquiat – “How could I have not bought a painting?” That was hilarious. 

JMB: What was I thinking? Like, duh? But I wasn’t thinking about it. I was thinking, “I’m a photographer, and I’m going in and taking this picture. I hope I’m going to get the picture.” I really wasn’t thinking about investing.

SXSE: You also talked about photographing Robert Mapplethorpe, and you recalled that he was very kind, and that surprised you. 

JMB: Yeah, that’s because from his photographs he seemed like a really tough guy, but no. He couldn’t have been sweeter. I was very nervous because I liked his work a lot. I admired his work, especially now; recently I was looking at his portraits and they’re really good. But I especially liked his early work, his early portraits, before they became stylized. I think the black men are the best; to me that was his passion, that was what he was really into, and those are the strongest.

SXSE: As you were pulling together the images, so many of those people have passed away from AIDS. What sort of feelings did that pull up for you? 

JMB: It’s so sad. It’s sad, because you think, what would they have done? What would they have been like now? If they’d only gotten that cocktail of drugs a little bit quicker.

SXSE: That’s part of the poignancy of the images as well – they capture the last innocent moment of that generation.

JMB: That’s exactly right. It makes me sad to think about that. Robert Mapplethorpe’s not around. Keith Haring – he was such a sweet man. He was just very charitable, he really wanted to do good, and think of all of the joy his work has brought to people. To kids. He loved kids.

SXSE: When you were doing the photographs, why did you choose black-and-white?

JMB: I was really a classically trained photographer, ICP [International Center of Photography], no cropping, cropping inside the camera, not outside, so in a way I was a purist. And I’ve only recently changed my ideas about that, because I don’t think we can hold on to this anymore. We’re in a digital world now, and we’d better just embrace it and learn from it and go. It’s fun! Plus, to find a place here to process your film – there’s a good black-and-white lab here in Rome, but color is really difficult. So throw that away! I’m done with that!

SXSE: So are you now totally working digitally, or do you still go into the dark room? 

JMB: I started a new project in two-and-a-quarter color, with a Fuji portable six-by-six camera, and I love that camera. But it’s just not practical for me, and I’m continuing it in digital now. I have a Leica digital which is an amazing machine. I’ve got a Leica M-9, and the great thing about it is you can use old Leica lenses with it. They don’t make you go out and buy digital lenses with it. You can just adapt it.

SXSE: Do you miss the dark room at all, though? Do you miss the chemicals and the process? 

JMB: (Without hesitation) No. Nope. No. Not at all. I still have a wonderful printer who prints my silver prints, and she is amazing, and I would never even dream of competing with her in the dark room. Some people are just not good in the dark room, and (laughing) I’m probably one of those people! I don’t like being in a dark room on a sunny day. I can’t stand it. It is pretty amazing, though. I remember the first time I saw an image develop in a dark room, and I thought, “I can’t believe this! It’s magic!”

SXSE: Now let’s talk about My Mother’s Clothes. For example, you chose color for this project, which makes sense with the clothes. How long did it take? Which clothes did you choose?

JMB: It had to be in color because the clothes were colourful and she was colourful. I couldn’t do black-and-white. How did I choose the clothes? I guess I chose the ones I had the most memories attached to. Also, they had to be easy to photograph. Some clothes it’s hard to take a good picture of, so these clothes are graphic and memorable. For example, the one on the cover is a beautiful dress. Underneath the dust jacket there’s a separate cover for the book, sort of an art cover. They sold it like that at Anthropologie and they ordered it without the cover, because that’s their market.

SXSE: Another wonderful image is the picture of your mother on the back cover wearing the dress. 

JMB: (laughing) And I don’t know who the man in the picture is with my mother.

SXSE: That’s not your father?

JMB: Nope, no, no, no. I don’t know who he is!

SXSE: Have you kept the clothes or passed them on, or do you wear any of the vintage pieces? 

JMB: No. My brother and I decided to donate half to SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design), because they have a school there where they actually handle the clothes and study them; and the other half to University of Georgia, because they have a collection of Georgians’ clothing. Like I went in there, and they had Billy Carter’s clothes! But my mother went to the university, and she was from near Savannah, so why keep them in a closet and let the moths get to them if they can be useful to somebody?

SXSE: What is the difference between the photographic worlds of New York and of Rome? Of the scene? And how does living in Rome influence your work? 

JMB: There is a photography community here, and every Fall there’s a man named Marco de Luca who organizes a festival here, sort of single-handedly, and he’s trying to make this a destination for photography. New York is so competitive, and there are so many photographers and galleries, and they’re all trying to vie for the same positions, and I find I have air here. I have space to create. The light is unbelievable, and I think that’s one of the reasons I started shooting color. Rome is a city of color.

SXSE: Are you a participant in the photography festivals? Do you show? 

JMB: I participated last year. But I’m going to a lot of openings, and I fully support this. It’s a great thing.

SXSE: Are you a collector? Do you collect photographs yourself? 

JMB: I’ve got a Sally Mann. We own this “Night Blooming Cereus” and I bought it. It was one of her first shows, and I thought, “I want that picture.” I took a workshop with her at ICP and she was really great. We also own a Gregory Crewdson. My husband is an art dealer and he does art fairs, and he loves to curate shows, so he’s always finding wonderful pieces. I’ve also traded with Ralph Gibson.

SXSE: Do you have favorite photographs you’ve taken?

JMB: My favorite bodies of work shift around and change, depending on how my mood changes or how seriously I’m taking myself. If you’ve seen Mirrors, those are dark and very serious, but I would say one or two of those are the favorites of my work. They were like self-portraits to me. Some of them were a little painful, but they’re honest.

SXSE: Have you met anyone you really admire that you’d like to photograph? 

JMB: Let me tell you my Patti Smith story. I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Basel, Switzerland – my husband helps run the Basel Art Fair – and I was sitting with a friend and we saw Patti Smith. My friend told me to go ask her if I could photograph her. I said, “I can’t ask her – she’s checking into a hotel!” But I did. And I went up to her and I had a little catalogue of my portraits, and she spent twenty minutes talking with me about them, saying, “These are all my friends!” I haven’t photographed her yet, but…

SXSE: What’s ongoing right now? 

JMB: I’m doing this color project that started out as color photographs of Rome, but it’s not that anymore. It’s basically just where I am, I’m taking pictures. I’ll probably write again. I’ve also toyed with doing a project about my father. (She holds up an 8×10 color photo of two pairs of Gucci loafers, complete with lasts, lined up neatly before a window.) He had two pairs of Gucci loafers, and he would always wear them when he took me out to dinner. One is patent leather, and the other’s leather. He died last year. (She then holds up a picture of a dusty, 1960s adding machine.) The numbers on this machine – his lawyer and I sat down and figured out how much money he’d paid in alimony to his ex-wives. (Laughing.) It’s a big number.

SXSE: How has your Southern heritage influenced you as an artist? 

JMB: Melancholy. Melancholy is my middle name! I think that’s really what runs through a lot of Southern writers, artists, and photographers, is that sense of loss. We did lose that war.

SXSE: Do you miss the South? 

JMB: Yeah, I miss the South. I love it. I always toy with the idea of coming back and living part of the year somewhere in the South. Now I have so many new friends in Atlanta because I’ve been there over the past few years quite a lot. My father got sick and I went a lot to take care of him, but one of the good things about it was I made a lot of new friends. And I have tons of family. So I do miss the South. I like Southern people. They just want you to feel comfortable! “What can I do? Sit down and tell me all about yourself” kind of thing. They’re my home girls. I need to have my home girls!

Jeannette Montgomery Barron is represented by Jackson Fine Art Atlanta