Capturing the Fringes of America with Hunter Barnes
Tomorrow, documentary photographer and longtime member of the Milk family, Hunter Barnes will be showing his works for one exclusive night, at the New York EDITION Hotel. As part of an artist series taking place at the luxury destination, select photographs from the Milk archives will be on display. Shot over the last 15 years in crisp black & white, these images provide crystalline insights into various niche cultures across the hidden pockets of America. From the serpent handling church, to shots from Barnes’ first book Redneck Roundup, these analog prints give us city-dwellers a taste of the uncanny living on the fringe, while serving as tokens of Barnes’ path as he travels through life. Milk Made’s Karenna Insanally caught up with Barnes for a little pre-show chat about developing trust, the beautiful homogeneity of people, and his experience eating barbecue with the Bloods.
You shoot very niche societies, how do you go about finding your subjects?
You know a lot of them, believe it or not- and this is kind of crazy, have always come naturally. It’s either been through people that I’ve met that have lead me there, or by discovering someone somewhere and introducing myself. Someone will just say, “I know these guys you should go meet.” They’ll either tell me about it or take me out there. With Lowriders for instance, I just went out there, told them what I was doing, and showed them my work. I published my first book when I was really young, I was about 21 I think, and that book was really helpful to be able to take around and show people what my honest intentions were. Then we just start hanging out, and taking some pictures. Usually we end up hanging out more than just tacking the pictures. It’s more about the trust and getting to know somebody than the film going through the camera.
So there’s never a moment where you’re overstepping boundaries?
You just got to be careful not to. That’s why I always travel solo. I’ve traveled for a couple other projects with a friend that I was shooting with, but when I go on my projects I always go alone because I have control over what I say and do. I don’t have control over what anyone else does. It’s really just about having manners, and being respectful of people and their privacy, and their space. Usually if you feel you shouldn’t do something or say something then you probably shouldn’t. I kind of stick to that rule.
What’s the most special experience you’ve had while shooting?
Let’s see. I was always drawn more to my last projects, like the tribe and the serpent handling church. Those people are walking on a spiritual path. They have something they really believe in, and with people like that they’re very conscious of how they’re going to be seen. They have a lot of influence and have changed the direction I was going in at some points. Everyone I’ve shot is pretty special. Given all the places I go, these people let me into their homes and their private lives. It’s all pretty much equal to me. I don’t see much of a difference between any of those worlds.
What would you say you’ve learned about people through your work?
They’re all the same. People are people. People have the same loves and desires- they’re all striving for the same thing in the long run. I see a lot of friends I’ve made on the road. I see a lot of places that don’t exist anymore -some of the people are gone. To me they’re shared moments in time, I really just see my life. These pictures have become my life, and have become who I am. They shape it.
This may be an obvious question, but how does shooting in black and white deepen the story?
I’ve always really loved the process of black and white, I was trained formally in it. Then of course, if you’re trained in anything and you’re pushed into something somehow, then you’ll want to rebel against it. But I really fell in love with the process of printmaking. Honestly, the archival properties of shooting black and white photographs are what I really like. When people collect my work, they’re getting something that’ll last through time. You’re dealing with silver halide crystals rather than ink on paper. Timing is such a big thing with my photographs, I shoot a lot of 120’s so you get 10-12 frames and you’ve got to make every shot count. It’s a slower process where every frame means something.
You’ve had the opportunity to temporarily become a part of many different cultures. Have you ever been compelled to join one?
I’ve stayed places for a long time, and I’ve gone back and visited friends of mine, but I always knew my point was to go there, take photographs and come back and share them with people. It would be counter-intuitive if I just never came back.
I noticed that with each series, you include a block of text that is well written with a beautiful sentiment, can you tell us a bit about your writing?
You know, Rassi [Founder of Milk Studios] was actually the one who encouraged me to publish my writing. He’s been so influential and I shared my work with him since day one. I don’t write that often, and I don’t really take pictures that often, it’s always project specific, and those little bits of writing are really meaningful. They come from somewhere that’s really pure when I’ve done it and it’s usually done when I’m there or right when I get off the road.
Can you tell me about shooting the Bloods?
I was introduced by a friend a long time ago and I thought the Bloods were just very dynamic. I met this guy and I vibed with him. He was a super nice guy, and he was a Blood. I was told that where I wanted to go was a really heavy area and I had to hang out with them for a few weeks before I took any pictures. We had a lot of barbecue and we hung out –I got to know their parents even. Although we hung out for weeks, the photos were taken in one or two days. As much as I needed to understand them, they needed to understand me, and know that they could trust who I was.
And what is your understanding of the Bloods?
They’re blood man, they’re family. It’s where they grew up, that’s their side. Once again, people are people. I remember drinking lemonade with my friends grandma, and it reminded me of just hanging out with my own grandma.
Hunter Barnes’ work will be on display for one night only at the New York EDITION Hotel June 3rd from 8PM-late
Photography by Hunter Barnes