Discontinuity is one of the few constants among the 78 images in Untitled Photographs by Tim Barber, recently published by OHWOW. The artist's first monograph includes black-and-white and color work spanning the past 15 years and varies—wildly and in every way imaginable—in subject matter, style, method and affect. The Canadian-born, New York-based Barber courts this apparent inconsistency so aggressively that it's a stance, although the implications of his position are ambiguous. It is unclear whether he figures his eye alone provides understated coherence to the assembled exposures, or if he considers the entire issue of authorial sensibility irrelevant-perhaps outmoded.
It's a knot worth trying to untangle because the best pictures in this uneven collection are terrific. Barber works unproblematically in both editorial and fine art, and though no fashion images are included, several photos here echo conventional fashion images: in these instances, a central figure emphasizes gesture and pose over facial expression, amidst evocative but generic settings that seem to have only a stilted or distant relationship to the subject. Seen from behind her elevated perch in Untitled (peace march), 2001, a rally-goer's brown suede overcoat and stringy blond hair, in sharp focus, pop against a blurry, distant sea of open umbrellas. Barber's crafty use of flash heightens the sense of back-alley high jinks in Untitled (hang), 2004, in which a young man in a flannel hoodie and jeans dangles, to unknown but perhaps illicit purposes, from the rain gutter of a windowless warehouse.
Pictures like Untitled (lady), 2010, a standard-issue, black-and-white shot of a distant Statue of Liberty, or Untitled (pond), 2009, an unremarkable sylvan scene fogged by lens flare, or Untitled (bonfire), 1999, in which a crowd gathers around a fire on a beach in inadequate lighting, are not compelling. Though he prefers to work with point-and-shoot cameras, Barber is no amateur and his attempts to resemble one seem mannered.
Untitled Photographs includes straightforward portraits of beautiful young people, often in cars, and mercifully few of young people partying to excess. In Untitled (Melvin), 2008, a tiny fishbowl with a single tropical fish is cradled by a pair of hands and drenched in afternoon light. Through the glass, a big eye scrutinizes the little creature. A lithe young man in undershorts and a towel clambers up a pipe scaffold in Untitled (climber), 2002. Shot from a low angle, he is suspended above drab apartment buildings and framed against a leaden sky, making him a kind of anti-superhero. These images share a curious elegance, and it's odd that Barber obscures his vision by clouding it with less distinctive work. Perhaps his skepticism toward individual sensibility is in synch with the image-sharing, crowd-sourcing spirit of our time.
Barber knows from the zeitgeist: former photo editor of Vice magazine, in 2005 he founded tiny vices (tinyvices.com), an immensely popular selection of photographers' portfolios. His choices there reveal a taste for the casual and unassuming, as in the work of Gus Powell, Barry Stone and Jaimie Warren, among others. In the book's afterword, former Vice editor-in-chief Jesse Pearson implies that Barber's eclecticism results from "unconscious communion with the ether"—that is, an intuitive approach. Shooting and editing with this non-method yields some gems, but, by presenting the viewer with puzzles of inclusion, Untitled Photographs complicates rather than dissipates the question of what it means to have a discerning eye.
Untitled (dive board), 2004. © Tim Barber