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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

"Invasion" of privacy and telling a story

Barnes addresses the issue of whether or not the kind of documentary photography he did for the North Carolina Fund constituted an invasion of privacy. According to Barnes, documentary photography at its best did offer a "private look" into the everyday lives of the photographed subjects, but he believed it was possible to capture such images without truly invading privacy. In ruminating about this topic, Barnes argues that the best pictures were those that told a story. He offers several anecdotes about some of his favorite photographs.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Billy E. Barnes, November 6, 2003. Interview O-0038. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ELIZABETH GRITTER:
I ran across another quote in that book. I don't know if I wrote it down here. [Gritter looks at her notes.] Where the interviewer asks the photographers, "Aren't your pictures in some way an invasion of privacy? And he said, "Yes, but all good pictures are." So I was wondering what you would say to that.
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
I wouldn't say all good pictures are—not because of the privacy part but because of the invasion part. I don't think all pictures are an invasion. But I think the best pictures are the ones that give a private look at a person, which is interesting because it's a private look. It's a look that the average person doesn't see in a day. If you take a picture of a stop sign, it's very hard to take a compelling picture of a stop sign because it's something everybody sees every day. It's hard to take a picture of the bell tower on the Carolina campus that's a compelling picture because it's something that people walk by every day. It is a challenge to be able to frame it in such a way—with tree leaves around it and stuff and the clouds just right—so that it's more compelling than it would otherwise be. But pictures of people, yeah—. Even if you take a picture in the public, we have the idea that there is a certain privacy about our bodies that is invaded if someone takes a picture of it. So, I don't agree with the invasion part, but I do agree with the idea that in a way there's a relationship between the degree to which you are depicting someone in their privacy and the degree to which the picture is compelling. If it's a picture of Barbra Streisand or some great violin player, the picture is a whole lot more compelling if the violin player is in his or her own home, practicing, so that you get some idea of their environment not only of what their face looks like. It's going to be more compelling than a picture of them on the stage at Carnegie Hall. So, giving the person who sees a picture a look at the person's private feelings through their facial expression and body language. I think it's an exaggeration to call it an invasion. I think of it more as a visit. A very non-invasive, non-aggressive visit to this person. A case in point is one of my favorite Billy Barnes photographs is the photograph—I think I showed it to you, it didn't have anything to do with the North Carolina Fund, it was shot in the '70s—of a black man with a hard hat on with a barber shop in the background, and there's a big old Chevrolet next to the black man. What the story looks like to me is the black man has just gotten off from work, and he's waiting for somebody to pick him up. He's leaning against this post. He's kind of tired, and behind him there is a barbershop. Through the window of a barbershop, we see two white guys—one of them sitting in a regular chair and one of them is sitting in the barber chair—and they're chatting. There's this old pendulum clock on the wall, and it says a little after five. What it does for me is it tells me a story about these three people. There's the barber who's talking to the guy who's sitting in the chair. His buddy who's come by from some other—. He's the jeweler down the street. Outside there's this laborer with his hard hat on, and he's waiting for something to happen. You got these planes of interest. The black guy is a lot closer to you—the worker is a lot closer to you. Just across the sidewalk behind him there's the barbershop. I think it would be a stretch to say that I invaded other people's privacy. But I was driving by, and I saw that scene. I hopped out and found a parking place and hopped out and went back and shot the picture. None of the three of them knew I was there. I didn't want to know I was there because the whole thing would've changed. Everybody would've looked at the camera and grinned. So, I suppose, to a certain extent, I was exploiting their privacy but it was a public kind of privacy, you know—something that was going on. That's what great painters do. If you're going to shoot pictures of people, you shoot pictures of people doing things or caught not doing things—caught in a state of relaxation where they are not making something or sawing something. You're showing them being who they really are and showing what people really do. I've always been fascinating with the painting called "Nighthawk[s]." I can't think now of the artist's name—.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
Edward Hopper.
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
Okay. Hopper's "Nighthawk[s]." I love that photograph because it does the same thing. It looks through a window at people, doing what people do about 2:00 in the morning. They're chatting. They're drinking coffee. There's the guy behind the bar with his standard 1940s paper hat on. That picture has enormous appeal. It is probably one of the most famous paintings by an American artist that exists today. I see it everywhere. I saw it on the cover of an A-O-L free disk the other day in Walmart.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
[Laughter]
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
I ran into one of Hopper's disciples while I was doing a television piece on him. This guy is just a Hopper freak. The guy I was interviewing is a sculpturer. He makes these small houses about that big—well, some of them are about that big and some of them are about that big—in exquisite detail. Some of them are done on commission, and some of them are just done because he wants to do them and sells them for and so forth. He's gotten to be very well known. He's a real Hopper—. He must have mentioned Hopper thirty times during the time I was interviewing him for that television piece. But I don't think the people in "Nighthawk[s]"—. I don't think their privacy is being invaded. But they are having a little private scene going. Well, I think that's a very interesting quotation. I'm glad you told me about it. I don't agree. I've met a whole lot of aggressive photographers who were intent on invading people's privacy and letting them know that their privacy was being invaded and considered people their subjects in the same sense that a king considers the peasants his subjects. These people—they want to be in the magazine or in the newspaper. "They're going to do what I tell them to do. They're going to smile when I say smile. If I tell them to take their clothes off, they're going to take their clothes off. If I tell them to change shirts, they're going to change shirts." But, I think that kind of photography gives an entirely different kind of picture which does invade people's privacy.
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
What—you've touched on some of this. What, to you, makes a good picture?
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
It's a picture that tells a story. I'll use my photographs as an example. I just told you about one that I think just tells a lovely story about the time of day in a small town where three people—two of whom have a personal connection and the other one doesn't—are all in the same scene, doing what people do about ten minutes after five. There's even a clock in there that tells you what time it is. It's an exquisite piece of serendipity. The picture of Miss Mary that I showed you—of the little old African American woman in the rocking chair. The first thing you see is this smile—this incredibly glowing, knowing smile. Then you see the way she's dressed. She's got on this shapeless dress. She's got on socks that don't match—one of them is striped and one of them is not. I think there's a little potbellied stove over here, and there's an old bedstead over here. There's a jar of something liquid sitting down on the floor, and you don't know whether it's white liquor or whether it's kerosene for the stove. You wonder, "What's in that jar?" You don't know the story the way I know the story. But if it were in a book, I could tell you the story about how that lump over here that has got all of her receipts in it for everything she ever bought so that she can prove that stuffbelongs to her. That, to me, is the perfectly conceived photograph. Although I didn't conceive it, it just happened. Another example is the picture of the woman sitting on her little caravel bed, and the child has come over to her and laid her cheek on her mother's knee. Do you remember that one?
ELIZABETH GRITTER:
[Nods]
BILLY EBERT BARNES:
I walked into the front door of this house, and there it was revealed to me. I didn't even ask. I guess the worker I was with said, "Mrs. So and So. We came to visit you, and he's getting some pictures." But I realized that if I didn't get to work, that situation was going to be gone. To me, it was clear at the time—and I hope it's clear in the picture—that she's real sleepy eyed, and she's kind of still not very with it because she just got up. Her hair is all frazzled, and she's in a nightgown. I think just before I got there this little child had toddled in and awakened her. I think Grandma was back in the kitchen making breakfast. And the little child—time for her mama to get up—she thought. She had come and awakened her mother. Her mother had sleepily thrown her legs over the side of the bed, and this little child had just kind of given her a cheek hug. I think a picture has got to tell a story. The first thing a photograph has to have is a center of interest. If you look at a photograph and you don't know where your eye is supposed to focus, then it's a sorry photograph. I don't care whether it's a landscape or a street scene or a group shot. Well, I won't say it's a sorry photograph. It's a very ordinary photograph unless there's something central that the eye cannot resist focusing on. Then, after it feasts on that sight—often it's a face—for a while, then it begins to see the context. The perfect picture, in my way of thinking, is a picture that tells a story. Like the little freckled-face boy with the home-made wagon. Here's this little kid who's obviously not born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He lives out in the country because there's a barn behind him. He's got the tongue of this wagon that looks like it was put together by Rube Goldberg. You know, it's got an old plank here and an old plank there and an old wagon wheel here. You could probably write a short story about that. In fact, someone once bought a batch of my photographs to be used in high school texts that was an exercise in short story writing. The kids were to take these ten photographs, pick their favorite photograph, and write a short story about the person or people in the picture. That's, I think, is the ideal photograph.