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Capturing Back Roads with Hunter Barnes

When it comes to revealing the hidden aspects, and occasional dark sides, of America, no better portfolio can be found than the work of Hunter Barnes. From his first book Redneck Roundup through his recent collection Roadbook, Barnes has an uncanny ability to depict some of America’s most clandestine corners and unexpected subjects in breathtaking detail. Whether it’s Serpent Handling Churches or notorious gang The Bloods at a home barbecue, Barnes shines the light of his camera in the places most people have never dreamt of, let alone thought existed.

With an upcoming show here at Milk Gallery, we hit Barnes with 10 Questions regarding his work, his creative process, and what it’s like bringing these fantastic subjects to life.

When you were starting off in photography, you were planning on going into commercial photography. How did you first get interested in documentary photography and how did that transition happen?

The transition happened naturally. I was 21 years old living in New York and met a girl who took me to her hometown to meet her family. When I got there I was blown away by the beauty of the land and the people that were living there; the people were truly a dying breed of ranchers, farmers, and hard working people living off the land. I knew right then I was supposed to document these people before the area changed. We packed up and drove west to Oregon where I started my first book, Redneck Roundup.

Going through your work, there are shots of your close friends and family intermixed with your shots of niche societies, like the serpent handlers and the Bloods. Yet they all convey this similar sense of intimacy. Do you approach shooting subjects that you are already very familiar with as opposed to subjects you are still learning about in the same way?

I never consider anyone a subject. I go into any new place with respect to who has invited me and gratitude that they allowed me in.

Though you have an apartment in New York City, your studio is in Oregon. Does being somewhere that is relatively more isolated help you be more focused and inspired with your work?

Both inspire me in different ways. My friends that are in the city definitely inspire and encourage me to keep growing, while my place in Oregon gives me the space to see clearly with no distractions, just the inspiration of nature.

The process in which you shoot communities and people happens very organically. What are some moments where the direction of the project has gone somewhere you didn’t expect? How is this natural spontaneity essential to your documentary style photography?

You just have to go there and spend time getting to know people. You have to let the story be what it is. I feel like it’s better to go in with fewer pre-conceived notions and just use your intuition of where to go and where not to go. It’s most important to me to show someone in the light of who they are.

Your work really allows the character and soul of your subjects to shine through. It seems as though the subjects have a lot of autonomy over how they are portrayed. How much of your own perspective, such as your background and your own ideology, plays into how the portraits turn out?

Usually I ask people where they want to be. Sometimes I suggest a spot if I see one when we’re there. I find that most people are at ease and comfortable when they know the portrait is a true depiction of who they are.

For the past 15 years or so, you have hand printed all your photos (versus how photos are typically printed today). How do you think this process, which seems so personal and physical, affects the end product?

I really love the process of silver gelatin prints. There are so many steps involved from start to finish, from mixing the chemicals to spotting the prints. I feel it brings the work together full circle from the first point of loading the film.

Your latest project has been shooting carnies and sideshow workers. What can you tell us about the inception of that idea and what it was like?

It was a project I wanted to do for years. At the right time I was able to meet someone who invited me in and get on the road with them. There is a sense of camaraderie between them. Once the word gets out between them you’re good to go. They work hard and love what they do. The carnivals are something I remember as a kid as a group of people that are loyal to that lifestyle. I’m seeing their industry getting smaller every year, and wanted to show what is brought into a small town in America for their entertainment.

Your photos are incredibly humanizing in that they give audiences an intensely personal look at communities that most typically don’t have a chance to encounter. What kind of impact do you hope your photos have?

First off, I want the person in the photo to be happy about it. I hope that it documents someone for who they are at a true time and place in their life to be shared.

Your work encapsulates so many different facets of the American narrative. Has your work ever taken you out of the U.S., and do you have any plans on broadening your focus to international subcultures?

I really love traveling the back roads of America, and have always been into finding the different worlds down its path. I documented the Tamil villages during the civil war in Sri Lanka. That was the last project I took on out of the country. You never know, if the right thing presented itself I might be open to it.

Moving forward, are there any other niche societies you have in mind for documenting?

I’ve got a couple in mind. There’s a lot out there.

Hunter Barnes: Roadbook opens at Milk Gallery on October 7th through November 8th 

All photos by Hunter Barnes

Visit Hunter’s website here

Be sure to visit the Milk Gallery’s website here

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