Photographer Tim Barber on the UO Blog

On occasion, the editors of Sight Unseen spot a story about creativity told from a viewpoint that’s not unlike our own. This interview with the New York–based photographer Tim Barber, who’s known for his edgy portraits of artists and other downtown tastemakers, was posted recently on the Urban Outfitters blog, where we took notice of its rather unconventional subject matter: UFOs, ghosts, chicken carcasses. Credit the fact that not only did the former Vice Magazine photo editor shoot UO’s playful new spring catalog, from which the picture above is taken, but he’s also currently judging a Weirdest Photo Contest for the retail giant. Of course, in his work for clients like Nike, Woolrich Woolen Mills, T magazine, Italian Vogue, and Stella McCartney, Barber has displayed a more serious side as well. We wanted to show both of them, so we went through his portfolio and chose some new photos to accompany our excerpt from the UO interview — instances where Barber has documented the private spaces of creatives, a la Sight Unseen. To read the full story in its original context, follow the link at the bottom of this article over to the UO blog.

How did you get interested in photography?
“I’ve been into it since I was pretty young. There were a lot of photo books in my house growing up and I was always obsessing over them. I started taking photo classes in 9th grade and have been basically studying it ever since.”

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever photographed?
“That’s really hard to say because there are so many degrees of weirdness. I photographed Woodstock ’99, where all the riots and violence happened…that was pretty weird in a kind of ugly way. I photographed a Luna Moth with a macro lens once, right up in its weird furry face. I have a photo I took at my friend’s farm of a goat riding on the back of horse! I worked for Vice Magazine for a while, and shot some pretty bizarre things for them over the years, like a guy partying wearing only an chicken carcass. Stuff like that.”

Artist Dan Colen
Artist John Smith

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?

“I’ve seen UFOs a few times, and a ghost once, but those are like normal weird things. I watched the Twin Towers get hit by airplanes and then collapse from a few blocks away. That was pretty weird.”

Ok, the UFOs—discuss.
“The first one I saw was over a field in the middle of Amherst, Mass. the town where I grew up. I was probably around 11-years-old. They had outdoor movie nights in the summer, and I was laying on my back not watching the movie and a bright white, wide blur of light flew right over us. No one else saw it though, so maybe I was having kid hallucinations.

“The second UFO I saw was actually just the smoke trail from a UFO. It was the summer of 2005 and I was in the dessert outside of 29 Palms in California (where we shot part of this UO catalog!). I was traveling with Ryan McGinley and a bunch of friends on a road trip, and the sun had just set behind us as we were driving down the road. I was driving, and in my rearview mirror I saw this huge bright smoke spiral high in the atmosphere. The sun had set, but this spiral was so high up that the sunlight was still hitting it, and it was all the brilliant colors of a California sunset in a past-dusk darkening sky. We pulled over and everyone sat on the roof of the van and we watched as the smoke spiral dispersed and the light faded on it. We were pretty much convinced that it was an alien thing, and that any minute the earth was going to be destroyed or something. It was insane and scary and exciting. When we got back to where we staying we watched the news on this tiny portable TV we had. There were reports of sightings of the spiral from all over Southern California, but no one knew what it was.”

Artist Bill Saylor
Artist Rita Ackermann’s studio

What was the ghost you saw?
“The ghost I saw was in an old Victorian house in Vancouver, in an area called Strathcona. I had been visiting my friends that lived there, and decided to crash on the couch for the night. There were French glass doors separating the room I was in from the front room. I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and saw the figure of a man standing behind the glass doors, just kind of swaying and staring at me. I was really scared, too scared to even move, so I just sat there, not knowing what to do. Eventually I started to realize that this figure was not scary somehow, that he was just sad. I think in my weird half asleep brain I just kind of came to terms with the fact that he was not a threat, that he was kinda half there, and I eventually fell back asleep. In the morning I told my friends about what I saw and they got really freaked out. They had a small child, who was maybe four, who had seen this man in the house multiple times. They had been so freaked out by this that they had asked the landlord about the history of the place, and he told them the previous tenant had shot himself in the head with a shotgun in the room that I saw the ghost in. There had even been a blood stain on the ceiling when they had moved in!”

So the ghost was scarier?!?
“For sure!”

Photographer Ryan McGinley at home
Photographer Mark Borthwick at home

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever done?
“I drove across the country once by myself. It wasn’t that weird, but what happens in your mind when you sleep sitting up and only talk to gas station attendants for four days is pretty weird.”

What makes one photo good and another photo bad?
“There’s no real answer to that question, there are too many variables. A good photo can go bad if the context changes, and vice-versa. I think generally speaking, my favorite photos are ones that intrigue me, that make me wonder and ponder and conjure.”

How does your commercial work differ from the work that you do for yourself?
“The commercial work has a very specific subject and audience in mind. My personal work I make for myself, and what I’m looking for and looking at is always changing.”

Click here to read the second half of the interview with Tim Barber over at Urban Outfitters’s blog. Or, click here to enter the company’s Weirdest Photo Contest.