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Interview with Rachel Barrett (2010 Daylight/CDS Photo Awards)

Interview with Rachel Barrett
Juror’s Pick (Hank Willis Thomas), Daylight/CDS Photo Awards Project Prize

In juror Hank Willis Thomas’s statement about your project, he said that you “understand texture” and that your “serious search for connection with your subjects comes through in your images.” Do you think that this is a fair assessment of what you try to do with your photography?

Absolutely. I was really taken with Hank’s statement — I felt that he expressed a profound insight into my work and brought up some ideas that I had not been able to articulate myself, particularly his comment about texture. That is a critical component to the images. With this series, I am trying to evoke what it feels like to be there. But photographs only invoke our sense of sight. We can imagine what something smells like, taste like and sounds like, but the tactile quality of the images I think can evoke our sense of touch, lends itself towards communicating visually what this place feels like.

Bolinas is a place where people go in search of a serious connection, with each other, with the land, and it is unquestionably what I am looking for myself. The camera is my means of engaging, is the way I best know how to connect with life, communicate with my subjects and express how I feel and who I am. Like Hank said, I am indeed trying to “touch life with my eyes.”

In terms of texture, your photograph At Low Tide caught our attention specifically. What is the backstory to that photograph and how does it relate to the project as a whole?

There is a deep integration between humans and nature in Bolinas, and this is an integral aspect to what this work is all about. The sea is such an immensely powerful element and here the coastline is rapidly deteriorating, eroding all day long. You can sit on the beach and hear and feel the cliffs crumbling apart. You can literally see the impact all the elements, human and natural, have upon one another.

During the full moon the tides are at their most extreme — the low tide recedes so incredibly far one can walk out further than you could ever imagine. Photography is about visual revelation, taking the viewer to places they have never been, uncovering something about life as never seen before. So the opportunity to truly put myself in the land, to physically and visually venture into the ocean, was one I readily pursued.

I made a real effort to pay attention to all the details of this place, specifically down to the ground beneath my feet. It is all the little things that are really what makes up this town, the sense of atmosphere, that often get overlooked. There are no “establishing shots” in the work because I am not interested in showing what Bolinas looks like from afar, but getting close, and using the sum of its parts to describe it as a whole.

We noticed that you title all your photographs that focus on one person with only their names. Is there a specific reason you do this?

It is important for me to identify my subjects, to an extent. I leave their last names out because I feel it is more intimate to use only their first names. I do consider those photographs to be portraits, each image specific to the person within it, true to who they are individually. I also hope to convey the ethereal essence I see and feel within everyone. Each image is hopefully strong enough to stand on its own, but they also are meant to intertwine and function collectively, to mirror the nature of the community here and their collective way of life.

Why did you choose to focus on Bolinas for your project? Are you personally tied to the community in any way?

My personal connection to Bolinas is through my best friend Jana, who I have known since I was two years old. She and seven other friends, some of whom I have known for many years, have shared a home there for the past two years. When they got the house and she told me of the history of Bolinas, the way of life that had persisted over so many decades, the intense beauty, I of course wanted to go and experience it myself.

I had spent many months thinking about finding a specific place to focus on as a way to impose more structure into my process. I did not want to impede the organic nature of my practice: nothing is staged or pre-conceived but always in the moment and of the moment, responsive to the here and now, wherever that might be. I needed the “wherever” to be the constant, to have one place where I would work and return to over time, while still staying true to myself as a photographer.

I began photographing there in July 2009, my first visit lasted only about 36 hours. When I got home to New York and got my film back I felt it was some of the most exciting work I had ever made and I decided at that point that I would make Bolinas the place. It was over many months and through the process of creating the work that the ideas behind the series came together, and began to come through in the photographs.

For the photograph titled Zoe, we are curious as to your thoughts behind the composition and the apparent allusion to Adam and Eve. Were you relating the community to religion/nature?

I met Zoe and her boyfriend the night before and asked if I could return to photograph them the next afternoon. We began the shoot inside their house but quickly went out back to get the light of the setting sun. After a few rolls they offered to take their clothes off. The apple tree was there before us and the Adam and Eve reference readily presented itself. T was still searching for his own leaf with when I made this photograph, the first frame I shot after they had undressed. Ultimately I felt the images of them together were too overt, and using Zoe alone was a subtler approach to implying that same iconography.

The series as a whole relates the community to nature, and I would say the relationship people here have with the land is an intensely spiritual one and can be seen as a religious experience itself. I think this photograph certainly supports my statement to that affect and is wonderful example of both my working process and the true collaborative nature of Bolinas.

Read more about Rachel Barrett’s work

CDS undergraduate students Crystal Chiang (Potomac, Maryland) and David Mayer (Durham, North Carolina) conducted this interview as part of the “Multimedia Documentary” class in the fall of 2010.

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