Barbara Alper: In Conversation - Vintage Prints
“There's a quote that I came across a number of years ago by Eve Arnold. She said that her intent was to photograph, with humor and irony, the ‘inconsistencies and absurdities current in everyday life.’ And when I heard that, I thought, ‘That's what I'm doing and that's what I want to do.’ And I continue to do that. I think life is funny. I think people are innately funny and weird. I'd rather laugh at something and look at the brighter side of things.”
Barbara in her studio, New York City, 2021 | Photo credit: Roxy Dierking
Barbara Alper’s long career as a photojournalist, street photographer, and fine art photographer is well-represented in our selection of items available through our partnership with Getty Images Gallery. Now, Barbara is opening her personal photo archive to offer collectors access to a selection of vintage prints.
There’s a deeply humanistic sensibility to Barbara’s work and these photographs, presented exclusively via FFOTO, cover the predominant themes that Barbara explores with her camera. Gently absurdist views of human behaviour and the artist’s generosity of spirit is evident throughout.
In March, Barbara and I got together via Zoom to talk about her art practice and some favourite pictures from her archives. We covered a lot of ground, which I’ve broken up into two elements; a 15-minute video tour of vintage prints, conducted by Barbara from her studio in New York City, followed by transcribed commentary from Barbara outlining aspects of her life and career. Grab a cup of coffee, and settle in.
Craig D’Arville, FFOTO Co-founder and COO
Barbara Alper on her introduction to photography:
I grew up in Detroit. My mother used to take pictures and she used to shoot 16mm movies; just family stuff. And my brother also took pictures and there's actually a photograph of my brother and me and my parents. All of us have cameras around our necks. And I was about 13 at the time. My father was a dentist and I would go and visit him at his office and go into the darkroom with him when he would develop the images that he would photograph of people's teeth. And that interested me also.
From Detroit, I moved to Boston and I lived there for eight years and that's where I really got started professionally with photography. I went up to MIT after having taken a basic photography class. I went up there with a box of prints where they had The Creative Photo Lab. And I wasn't interested in getting credits or signing up formally. So they let me just audit the course for a year. And I decided that after that I would start to support myself photographing and that's pretty much what I did. One thing kind of led to another. It was really... It was my third career and it was my right career. It was the one, it was what was for me, really.
On her lifelong connection to New York City:
My relationship with New York actually started when I was a kid. Both of my parents were originally from New York. My dad had left as a child and ended up in Detroit and then married my mother and brought her to Detroit. But we would visit New York on a yearly basis and I loved it and I wanted my parents to move to New York, which of course they weren't willing to do. So I kind of knew... I think that I always knew that at some point I'd probably end up here. And I moved here. I was finally sort of brought into New York permanently for love, which didn't last very long. But it got me to New York and there's... Coming from Boston, all of a sudden Boston seems like a really small place. New York is huge and there's a lot to explore and there's a... anything, and everything goes in New York. There's a very open-attitude approach to things. I come from Detroit where it was very segregated and attitudes went along with that. Whereas in New York, everybody is together and mixed; you don't see that as much in other parts of the country.
On identifying as a street photographer:
I am a street photographer. In fact, I was even told when someone was looking at my underwater photos that they thought they were street photography underwater. So I've always had this kind of mix of how do I identify myself as a street photographer or as a photojournalist or as a fine art photographer, because I've done work on assignment, but I've also had my own projects that I've felt like... at times I felt like I actually had a split personality, because doing things on assignment is fulfilling a certain requirement or certain specs. But obviously they're hiring me for my eye and for the way I approach a subject. But then there's my other work, which just comes from within and interests that I have. I like looking at people’s behaviour and attitude and, I guess, probably putting my own on top of that.
I like shooting on the street because it's very... well, one, I never know what's going to happen. When I'm walking around, something just happens in front of me. So I really never know what I'm going to encounter, but I always have walked around with a camera ever since I started taking pictures on a regular, full-time basis back in the late 1970s. And there's so many different things that I can come across. I can see people doing funny things on the street. I've photographed people... kids fighting on the street. I've photographed raccoons in the park, as well as the spring flowers blooming. I don't like doing the same thing over and over. So I think that's probably what comes across in the way I approach things, is it's... I can get bored and I don't want to get bored. So there's always something new and different happening on the street.
On making photographs in the 1980s and 90s:
Photography is, I think, innately voyeuristic. And I guess I have to admit that I'm a voyeur. I like watching. I like looking. I'm curious. I'm curious by nature. People say I ask too many questions, but in that sense I use my camera to explore that or help with my curiosity.
The energy of the time, during the time when I first started photographing in the early 1980s into the 90s, was very different from the way it is today. People today are camera conscious and even on the street, they're like, "Why are you taking my picture?" People get very defensive and you know, 30, 40 years ago now, there wasn't that. You took a picture and nobody noticed. It was okay. Nobody cared that gee, maybe their picture would end up in a paper or anything like that. I don't think they even considered it. Plus, I walk around; I don't have massive equipment. I never have, I don't walk around with huge lenses that make me stand out or be a little more conspicuous. So I can kind of maneuver through different settings fairly quietly. Even on jobs I've been told that I sort of disappear into the walls, which is helpful, certainly at times when I need to not be so obvious.
When I photographed the kids on the street during recess, I don't think I'd be able to do that today. I was in between apartments and I was staying with a friend who lived on a block where the school was. And so they were out during recess. I walked out of the building and there they were in the street playing. And I just walked around and stopped and took their picture. They didn't even pay any attention to me. They didn't notice me. They went on with playing and doing what they wanted to do. I don't even know that there were teachers around who might've stopped me as they would do today. You can't do that kind of thing anymore. I feel lucky that I was photographing back then.
On making photographs at Rockaway Beach:
I was photographing at Rockaway Beach for over 10 years, actually on a very regular basis every summer, to the point where people started to know me actually, as I'd come back the next summer. "Oh, there's the photographer. There's the woman walking with the camera taking pictures." And they started to get to know me. But even at the beginning of it, I think being a woman, being a petite woman, and I was in my bathing suit -- I was one of them. I wasn't going around like I was a paparazzi, so to speak. I was part of the scene. So in that sense I think it made people fairly relaxed around me and it really wasn't so much a problem.
Another aspect to my pictures at Rockaway Beach is that I was photographing in the same community; a community of older people. There was a senior living home nearby and also an Orthodox Jewish community, which also presents a kind of timelessness in their outfits, in their costume.
On using infrared film and selenium-toning on her prints:
I photographed Rockaway Beach with infrared film, which is what gives it that enhanced feeling of the beach, the heat, the light, the sun, because infrared plays with heat and light. What’s hot is light; what’s cold goes dark. So I never used it in other situations, but here it seemed to work beautifully. So it also, I think, gives the images a bit of a timeless quality. I would use selenium toning for my serious printing. I used the paper of choice, Agfa Portriga Rapid, along with selenium toning, which lends a nice effect and makes the prints archival and longer-lasting.
On photographing displays of affection:
I studied social work in school. And I think that somewhere in there, studying social work is an interest in human behavior. And some part of that is relationships and love and sex and a wide variety of things.
When I see a perfect setup, waiting for me to take a picture like the two kids embracing in the subway in front of the parental guidance and would you buy a hot dog from this man, was just this perfect moment that, of course, I had to take the picture. And walking through the Tuileries and seeing this couple embracing behind this very sensuous statue, was also this perfect configuration, this balance. And even the couples at Multnomah Falls, that there's the woman in the front holding her baby, and then the further back in the background, there's another couple with their child. And then you have this wonderful waterfall coming down. It's just this, again, this balance of nature and family and love. And that's a nice thing to see and capture as opposed to… I'm not one of the photojournalists who runs to danger, or to conflict, or to war. I'll photograph the after effects, but I don't want to see it; I don't want it in my head. Whereas I'd much rather see couples together, and people having sex or people making love, or people kissing in the subway, than the other side of it.
I'm not making fun of people. In fact, to that point, I had a conversation years ago with the director of the photo festival, Perpignan, Jean-François Leroy. And I said, "All you always show are the dark side of life. You're showing conflict and war, but there's the other side and there's fun and there's humor and there's life. And what about featuring some of that?" Which of course I was trying to promote my own work in that situation, but I meant it. That we need to see more fun and light in life because there's too much dark and misery and everything else going on, that a little balance is helpful. And that's... I want that balance in my life.
On why now is the time to open her archive:
I realized that I've got all this work and it's sitting in boxes. I have exhibited my photography throughout my career, but I haven't for a while. And I thought it's about time to bring it out again. Some of this has been prompted by Getty Image Gallery’s interest in my work and me realizing that, again, I've got all of this work sitting in boxes, sitting in file cabinets -- it’s great work and why shouldn't people see it, and own it? And now's the time, really, to make that happen and to connect with collectors.
Discover more of Barbara’s hand-picked vintage prints, available in limited quantities, at FFOTO.com/BarbaraAlperVintage
Inquiries are always welcome - ask for additional info about any artwork on FFOTO, set up a gift registry, and more. Drop me a note to start a conversation: craig@FFOTO.com