The rich - captured between the frames

Tina Barney's photos of wealthy European families are alluring, but also full of subtle visual surprises.

Even though Tina Barney has an important career in the United States, I was not very familiar with her body of work. I had seen a couple of her photos in group exhibits, but they were always in the context of the theme of some particular show.

So I was not really prepared for what I found when I flipped through the pages of The Europeans (Corcoran Art Gallery and Steidl Publishers, $50): the allure of the world of the privileged, a world that is so exclusive even as it is so universal.

As in her American work, Barney's subjects here are not just people with a lot of money, but those who seem entitled to it. The book is a collection of portraits divided by country (Italy, Austria, England, France, Spain, and Germany).

Each portrait reveals the subjects in the midst of their world, mostly their homes, in an extremely controlled and choreographed manner. These people do not need to do anything to be interesting in the photos, because their milieu speaks for them.

I must admit that I was first drawn to the environments of the photographs: a voyeuristic trip into the colors, textures, patterns, and gilding that frame these people's lives. But once I got past the environments, the photographer in me started decoding Barney's process.

First, Barney's choice of large format depicts her subjects in full detail. In these very controlled environments, Barney could use whatever depth she pleases and put the whole image sharply into focus.

But she chooses not to. The lack of depth highlights certain areas of the photograph, giving Barney the power of choreographing our gaze. This is clear in "The Antlers" (Austria), a portrait of a family in a room of hunting trophies, where the head of the household becomes the focus.

Second, though Barney taps into the tradition of formal portraiture, the subjects are shown at moments when their guard seems a bit down, as if they imagined they had a moment of free time in between shots.

In "The Daughters" (France) we see a father, mother and three daughters posing in a formal and beautiful room. The father and one daughter seem posed but the mother is fixing another daughter's hair while a third has her eyes closed. In "The Schoolboys" (Spain) a woman's arm at the doorway encourages one child to enter the room to join others for the portrait.

Third, the composition of the images is unusual. Subjects are partially cropped out of images in ways that seem amateurish. Some people stand blocking others, and strong elements in the backgrounds frame the subjects in odd ways. In "The Armoire" (Germany) a man stands in front of an armoire, blocking a big chunk of it, while his head - level with the armoire's top - creates visual tension.

So what makes this collection of portraits work? It is the beauty of the images juxtaposed to visual "blemishes." They make the viewer aware of the process and its creator. The "mistakes" highlight what's good in the images.

This work functions at different levels. It is both an ethnographic report on the rich and a visual playground for those who allow themselves to be taken for a ride. I was lured by the former and enchanted by the latter.

Alfredo Sosa is the Monitor's photo director.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.