Artist Keith Barker, received his masters in Photography from Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. Currently, Barker is teaching photography and chairs the Art Department at Asbury University in Wilmore, KY. In 2013, Barker was selected for an incredible artist workshop in South Africa to explore how the country's history, culture, and religion shapes how art is formed there.
Barker's work grasps the history and spirituality of places. He captures the contrasting concept of both history and the present time. In his most recent work, he has been in his hometown photographing the universal realities of certain people and places.
Outside of Barker's immense talents for photography, he is a family man who loves spending time with his wife and three children.
Lexington Art League (LAL): What experiences/influences drew you to photography?
Keith Barker (KB): My Dad has always been a gadget guy, and when I was a kid, an avid photographer. He let me use his Nikon body and lenses back in high school and I'm afraid I sort of took over the equipment because I loved using it! My best friend in high school got me even more interested, and we would work on projects together and develop film in my basement. I later decided to take it up seriously while in college.
LAL: What inspires you most in your work, specifically with Lengthening?
KB: I am energized by places and things that show the effect of time and a little history. This tree is not grand or important but it shows a particular faithfulness to what it was made to be, and to where it was planted. In these images, we watch it literally weather the storms and wind, yet remains green and, well, a tree! I have for years explored different ways of working with multiples and sequences, figuring that they could say more than individual images alone. The comparisons between the images are what interest me the most – what is in this image is not in that one, and so forth. The "Rephotography" work of Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe in which they re-photographed scenes of the American West 100 or more years after the pioneering photographs of Timothy O'Sullivan and others; Nicholas Nixon's Brown Sisters series showing the same four sisters posing enigmatically but consistently and annually for almost four decades. There is also Michael Wesely's work entitled Open Shutter - pinhole images exposed for over two years, depicting the construction of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan almost from start to finish. It spans from the summer of 2001 through late 2003, so, in a sense, all the events that took place during that time span, in a sense, are in that single image. These kinds of "then vs. now" comparisons have always fascinated me. Lengthening is not specifically about the same kinds of passages, but becomes more about what happens on a much smaller, personal scale. It is profound to me - that photography, and all good art not only shows us, but alludes to events and truths beyond itself.
LAL: The detail and layout of Lengthening is breath taking. Can you walk me through your process of making a piece like this?
KB: The main work was simply in remembering to go out everyday to photograph the tree. After that it was about picking the most important or most interesting image of those I'd made that day. It was a discipline, really. It started partly as something that would just keep me photographing through the cold days. Not fun at the time, but the payoff of seeing the images accumulate as I went was what kept me going. I tried to keep the tree about the same proportion within the frame, regardless of my position in relation to the tree. That meant changing focal length (i.e. zooming in or out) to keep the tree about the same size. I also had to adjust my settings so that the tree did not dominate the exposure decisions. While the detail in the tree is important, the detail surrounding the tree is equally so, and having a big dark blob in the middle in certain lighting conditions can make it hard to render adequate detail in both the tree and surroundings. So some images were more technically challenging than others.
LAL: It looks like the different photos were maybe from different seasons of the year. How long did it take you to complete Lengthening?
KB: This series depicts forty consecutive days of winter and spring 2015—one image for each day. There were over 400 total images that I shot and these were the selections from each day that I felt were most compelling and fit with the overall group. There are at least two different snow storms evident in the images.
LAL: Did the location where these photos were taken have any specific meaning to you? If so, what was it?
KB: For this project, I wanted to do a series of images of the same object and from differing vantage points over a span of time. So really, I picked this tree out of convenience as much as anything! The tree is so familiar to us that it has become virtually invisible.
LAL: As an artist you want your viewer to take something away from your work. What message do you want your viewer to take away from Lengthening?
KB: It's really about the quotidian, the small, daily things that start to become more important as they accumulate — because they accumulate. Think of the habits we commit each day – what we eat and how we exercise, etc. Some are good and some not so good. They are rather insignificant as individual acts, but they add up and make a difference long-term when done consistently and faithfully. These images were taken during the lengthening days of spring – where we get the word "Lent," as in, the traditional Lenten season of fasting in preparation for the Easter season. So this time period of forty days defined the structure for my project. In the same vein it became for me an almost liturgical exercise (partially from the Greek –ergos meaning 'work'). The different vantage points in the photos show variety but there is also consistency. On the front end, it was about the discipline to stay faithful to the project. On the viewer's side, it is about change, and what remains through it all.
LAL: What brings you the most joy to photograph?
KB: A most gratifying byproduct of this piece is that it has become sort of a chronicle of my family's life. That brings me joy! My kids can be seen photo bombing some days, but other times insisted that they not be included in any images. Sometimes they were just in the yard blithely walking through. Our geriatric black Lab can be seen curiously walking around the yard with me, sniffing the grass and the snow. She has since passed away so her personality and the memory of her life lingers in this piece. There is one image that features her lit in the sun almost like a halo, front and center in front of the tree. That one image is a tribute to her. My son had his ninth birthday party and so that event transpired during this piece. All the things that bring me joy - that sense of time passing and time's effect, as well as including my family and my home, and the always changing weather – all is wrapped up in this piece for me. Most viewers would not pick up on all that, I know. But I think meaning can be sniffed out by those who spend time and apply their own experiences, and so I trust that it will speak to at least some.
LAL: Out of all the different facets of art, what made photography stand out to you?
KB: I certainly enjoy the process though sometimes all the new digital possibilities of the last twenty or so years can be daunting to keep up with. But I like to try it all, and be as flexible as I can. As an educator I feel energized by my students' enthusiasm, when they learn new techniques, but most importantly when they find ways to use it as a means of expressing themselves. Photography is a very technical, mechanical (and has become a very electronic) medium. But it fascinates me that when it is done well, the artist's vision comes through, and has the potential of affecting others.
LAL: How do you choose where you are going to photograph? Do you carry your camera everywhere just in case you are inspired or do you plan it out carefully?
KB: This is a hard question to answer, and it is part of the reason I started the Lengthening project, because it forced me to work during the darkest, coldest time of year. I think though that places that inspire me hold history and a sense of time. Whenever I can get in such a space I feel inspired. I used to take my camera everywhere and document everything in sort of a "more-is-better" approach to exposing. But I don't as much. I try to switch channels in a healthy way from doing and not doing. Always looking for possibilities, but not burdening myself into working non-stop. An immediate medium such as photography can do that. I also look for opportunities to photograph people who exemplify history and time. My kids, for example, are always changing – it's what children do and is less evident in adults. I do not consider portraits my strength but I like to be ready for it.
LAL: How does your family inspire you in this piece and in your work in general?
KB: My family factors into what I do since I have to fold my work into my family life most times. My dear wife and partner, Bethany is a huge inspiration to me as she helps me keep grounded, and find that sweet spot between making images challenging but accessible. She is a gift. Our three kids do indeed appear in different places in these images. Without them this would just be about a tree.
Visit Keith Barker's website: www.kbarkerphoto.com and his artist archive today!