Continuing a photographic tradition of capturing the denizens of the back roads of the Pacific Northwest, Mark Barnes’s recent exhibition at Blue Sky included 43 black-and-white photos from 1992 to the present that document life along the lower Columbia River basin. That tradition dates back as far as Edward S. Curtis (who dressed up Native Americans in traditional garb at the turn of the 20th century) and stretches forward to Larry Fink (who caught loggers on the Olympic Peninsula in unguarded moments in the late 1970s). “Down River” was the fifth solo show since 1976 for a photographer who has also exhibited in New York, Rhode Island, Uzbekistan and Russia.
Judging by their expressions and their relaxed poses, Barnes’s people seem to know him, and he treats them with affection, respect and humor. This seeming familiarity, however, does not render the images less devastating. Three Jerrys (1999), a portrait of laid-off commercial fishermen on the banks of the Columbia, encloses the buddies in a rapturously gloomy environment of cloudy skies and leafless trees. It joins Harbor, Charleston, Oregon (2002) and Superbowl Sunday, Toutle River, Washington (2004) in an ongoing suite of group portraits that summons up the cheerless pathos of Walker Evans’s and Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era work. Barnes’s photos of out-of-work trailer park residents carry comparable documentary power with no less artistry than the pictures of his renowned predecessors. His depopulated scenes of demolished factories and abandoned roadside encampments also allude to another of photography’s early charges, to provide an anthropological record, and recall 19th-century French photography of Egyptian ruins.
In 15-by-19-inch enlargements or 8-by-10 contact prints, Barnes’s gelatin silver prints contain deep, lustrous blacks, silvery grays and smoky white tones that do not glamorize his daunted subjects but, rather, honor them and their plight. Often seizing on completely natural-seeming gestures, smiles and the occasionally telling, puzzled expression, Barnes brings his own compassionate eye to the long tradition of concerned photography.
Above: Three Jerrys, 1999, silver gelatin print, 15 by 19 inches; at Blue Sky.