Since cameras are everywhere and Americans are immersed in visual culture, it might seem as though everyone is comfortable having their picture taken. Those supermodels, TV and film stars, and even Facebook friends: some people just look as though they were born to be photographed.
Barbara Warren, a fine art photographer who has also enjoyed a career as a wedding and special event photographer, says this is not the case. The majority of subjects, in her experience, feel uncomfortable being photographed. She herself dislikes having her picture taken and feels a certain pressure to be perfect.
With this in mind, and in a departure from her previous creative endeavors, Warren launched a project of self-portraiture, telling the Greek myth of Perseus slaying Medusa through a series of narrative self-portraits.
Almost a year in the making, Warren’s work will be exhibited in the Taplin Gallery at the Arts Council of Princeton’s Paul Robeson Center for the Arts, Saturday, March 16, through Saturday, April 13. Titled “Perseus Slays Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold as Self-Portraits,” the show was curated by noted photographer, teacher, and Princeton resident Ricardo Barros.
The public is invited to the opening reception on Saturday, March 16, from 4 to 6 p.m. In addition, Warren will give an artist’s talk at the gallery on Saturday, April 6.
In Warren’s telling of the myth she melds her identity with the persona of each main character. Her expressive and large portraits convey not only the drama and adventure of Perseus’ quest, but also the psychological journey undertaken when one commits to confronting one’s fears. Warren’s own journey has a contemporary twist, and she, too, slays her Medusa — her lack of comfort in front of the camera.
“I decided to do self-portraits because in the past I never liked being in front of the camera,” she says. “I didn’t like pictures of myself, in fact, I was a little bit nutty on the subject. But having done portraits and weddings, I realized that I wasn’t unusual, more people are like me than not. I wanted to explore that in myself, and perhaps it would help me understand how to make my clients relaxed in front of the camera. It was an interesting challenge.”
In her artist’s statement, Warren reflects that this discomfort so common to us may have something to do with the perfectly lit, perfectly made-up images — which may have been photoshopped — that we see in magazines and on the small and large screens.
“We all have our own Medusa to slay, although some devils are more common than others,” she writes. “Our culture’s premium on youth and physical beauty, for example, dampens our self-esteem with unrealistic standards of adequacy. But there are many Medusas, each as intimidating as the next, and every one can turn their challenger to stone. This is why we sing praises of those who successfully confront their fears.”
A resident of Yardley, PA, Warren began her artistic quest as an assignment for a class she was taking with Barros, who has a studio in Bristol, PA.
“I had made about five images for the class, and Ricardo encouraged me to continue and make more pictures,” she says. “I did a total of what I feel are 20 good images, although I shot a lot more and there was a lot of experimentation in the process.”
That experimentation could sometimes involve hundreds of digital shots or takes, as Warren went back and forth from behind the camera to in front of the lens. Some were more complicated than others and took great patience to achieve. One image, her portrait of herself as Perseus, took some 700 tries to get what she had in mind.
“That might have been the most difficult one I made,” Warren says. “I wanted to portray a young man, and to get the style, the jut of the jaw, took about 700 images. When you’re in front of the camera, you can’t see what you’re taking. You have to guess, so I had to take a lot of pictures.
“I’d shoot remotely and then go behind the camera and see what I got,” she adds. “Maybe I didn’t frame correctly or the lighting needed to be adjusted. I’d make adjustments, return back and forth until I got something close to what I had imagined. It was very time consuming. The nice thing about digital is that you can shoot quickly, and it’s so much faster than film. It would have been really complicated, maybe even impossible if I’d been working with film.”
Often, Warren’s guessing at aspects of the shot rewarded her with an image that became something other than what she had in mind — to use a phrase sometimes attributed to photographer Jerry Uelsmann, “in-process discovery.”
“When you’re behind the camera, you have a lot more control, so this involved a certain amount of happenstance and luck on these images,” she says. “I had a concept of what I wanted, but I couldn’t see what I was taking, so there were some ‘happy accidents.’ I ended up with things I hadn’t thought about trying, but I liked a lot.”
Growing up on a farm outside of Lexington, KY, the Warren family raised beef cattle and tobacco, and she, her parents, and her siblings all worked on the farm.
Warren graduated in 1978 from the University of Kentucky in Lexington with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering. She came to the Mid-Atlantic region to work in the research and manufacturing sector of Rohm and Haas, the chemical company based in Philadelphia that has since been taken over by Dow Chemical. While at Rohm and Haas, Warren also received a certification from the Wharton School of Business’ evening program for professionals in the Philadelphia area. Her partner, Dave Hough, works in research and development for Johnson & Johnson in Titusville.
“After 25 years in the corporate world, I was ready to take a break,” she says. “My job involved a lot of traveling, and I was getting tired of it. Around 2002, there were many changes. They were offering buyout packages, so I decided to start something very different. I had always loved photography as a hobby, so I left and started a photography business. It was a real leap and a life change.”
Ansel Adams is just one of many influences, Warren says. Numerous classes with a variety of teacher, including Richard Wright and Barros, as well as years of wedding and event photography have also sharpened her skills.
Warren’s fine art photography has been published in “B&W” magazine, “Photographic Magazine,” and “American Vision: Images by the Best of Today’s Amateur Nature Photographers.” Her awards include Best Body of Work 2011 at the Phillips Mill photographic exhibition, and Best of Show 2010 at the same venue, as well as Best of Show in “Voices of the Marsh” 2010, sponsored by Friends of the Marsh in connection with D&R Greenway Land Trust. She has also participated in group shows at the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown and at the Trenton City Museum.
For the Perseus series, Warren printed her photos very large — the largest is 30 by 60 inches — on rice paper, a nontraditional medium for photography that had her worried for a while.
“It was quite an adventure getting them to come out right, but I persevered and figured out the technical issues,” she says.
“Having the images large and in a solo show is very powerful,” she says. “Working with the rice paper is a new experience for me, and the images are almost translucent. I printed them large; they’re bigger than life, because a lot of our myths are bigger than life. They also have an ephemeral quality. They’re very thin (from the rice paper), and this fits in with the idea or portraying a myth as well. Myths have an ephemeral quality themselves.”
After all this effort, one wonders if Warren has overcome her discomfort with the unforgiving lens?
“My need to be pretty for the camera disappeared,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “Role-playing became my shield, emboldening me to confront my own Medusa. I had the power to be young, old, ugly, frightful, and handsome. I could choose whether to be female.
“In making these photographs, I realized that a photograph of me is not ‘me’ — it is a moment in time, a mask, an invention,” she writes. “I can pass for a young, heroic male or the oldest of the gods, a monster or a goddess. I am none of these. My likeness has lost the power it once held over me. In using photography as a mirror for self-reflection, I can look at the Medusa and slay her.”
Barbara Warren’s ‘Perseus Slays Medusa: A Greek Myth Retold as Self-Portraits,’ Arts Council of Princeton, 102 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Opening reception Saturday, March 16, 4 to 6 p.m. On view through Saturday, April 13. Artist’s talk, Saturday, April 6, 2 to 4 p.m. Free. 609-924-8777, www.artscouncilofprinceton.org, or www.barbarawarren.com.