Artist Jack Barnosky, whose photographs are dark and compelling, evasive and full of history, talks about his vision, his career as an art professor, his favorite city and his loving wife—the “enlightened zen master without a saphron robe.”
I’ve been told repeatedly that I’m a somewhat swarthier and more mature version of Johnny Depp. I’m a left wing secular humanist Democrat who has never voted for a Republican. Why? Because I work for a living.
When and how did you realize your artistic talent?
I still question the very notion of “talent.”What talent is required to make art? Did Jackson Pollack have talent when making his drip paintings? I really don’t have talent. I guess I just have a real blue collar work ethic. I was raised with no sense of entitlement. If I wanted something I had to work for it. That is still true today. Not trying to be self-deprecating, just truthful.
What is your preferred medium for creating art?
Uh, lemme see. Oh yeah. Photography.
Your photographs—why black and white?
Nothing—nothing—is more beautiful than a well made B&W photograph. Originally I just wanted to make beautiful photographs with the whole darkroom process. This ended about 12 years ago when film and paper makers began changing their emulsion formulas. All of a sudden, and I mean literally overnight, the whole process no longer worked. It was the day the darkroom died. I tried every alternative process you can name but could not get, on paper, the image that was in my head. It was quite frustrating. Three years ago I began digitizing my negatives and slowly the digital photography world began to show itself to me. Now I am virtually all digital. It’s like having to learn to read all over again. And guess what? There really is color out there and I’m using it.
What is your favorite city in the world and why?
Paris, followed by NYC, with Florence bringing up the rear. There is nothing like Paris. It is alive and still, after 5 visits, a bit exotic to me. Obviously the scenery is magnificent. Food and wine are great (I don’t like wine but I drink it in Italy and France), and the people are actually quite nice and, I might add, beautiful. Hard to turn a corner in Paris and not see something I want to photograph.
You said once that you spent a day walking around Florence “just making photographs.” Why “making” and not “taking”?
Interesting question. I do say “make” as opposed to “take” or “shoot.” I’m always thinking ahead. I see the scene in the viewfinder but I know it’s not done. I have to make something of the negative—now digital file. It is never finished when in the camera. Never.
When did you decide to teach?
I attended Brooks Institute from ‘71 - ‘74. This was an intensely hostile place for any talk of art or aesthetics. The moment I got there I knew I was in the wrong place, but I was already 24 years old and had to graduate from somewhere. So I plowed through it and did graduate. Towards the end of this time I realized that I did not want to be a part of the daily grind of making commercial photographs. I began sending out my cute little one-page resume to colleges. Can you say NAÏVE?
Actually, I got 2 interviews, but no jobs . So my wife and I (she was not yet the enlightened zen master without a saphron robe), thoroughly heavy with child, headed back to Philadelphia.I managed to get that dream job. For a year I made bricks during the day and did custom color printing at night. I don’t remember sleeping.
When the foreman handed me my pink slip, I was relieved, but my first thought was,“O.K., now how do I buy baby food?” In ’79 I began sending resumes again and by an amazing set of coincidences found myself teaching in what then passed for the Community College system in Indiana. Got an M.F.A at IU and spent 12 years there. This is the time I really learned photography. A Bachelor’s degree and an M.F.A and I still had to teach myself. Then on to Sam Houston State University in Texas, and now in my 20th year there.
What music genre do you enjoy most? Are there any artists or albums you’re really into right now?
I have about 20 CDs.No more. They range from 50’s doo wop to Florence and the Machine. Dylan, Stones, Aaron Copland, Beatles—pretty eclectic. In class, someone asked me what the last song I downloaded was. When I said, “The Dog Days are Over” by Florence and the Machine, there was a dead silence in the room.
And I only listen to music in the car. Never anywhere else. We are weird. There are NO music listening to devices in our house. Even I think that is strange. My wife (the enlightened zen master without a saffron robe) listens to books all day.
What do you do when you’re not doing art?
I usually am making art. This new digital world is huge and challenging and I’m a slow learner. I do read—science fiction, long historical novels, biographies—again, pretty eclectic. I’m a sports fan and during football season on Saturday the television is mine. Do not touch the remote!
What do you order at Starbucks?
Double cappuccino with a shot of sugar-free raspberry.“That will be $14.00, sir, and have a nice day.”
If you could collaborate with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?
I would love to collaborate with the artist Richard Powers. He was my first and strongest visual influence.In a sense, I am collaborating with him today—I’m seeing a touch of him in many of my photographs.
Then there is: “How about it, Mr. Vonnegut? You write a book and I’ll make photographs to accompany your words.”Now that would be really COOL.
For more interviews like these, visit my art blog, Art Etc.