Interview: Barb Peacock (Part One)

I’ve been wanting to chat with Barb Peacock for quite a while - and we’ve traded a few messages on Instagram about it over the last few months, until at last, the stars aligned and we were able to have a wide ranging conversation about family photography, being a mom/business owner/artist, and her own journey through all of that and into both professional prestige and viral fame with her current project, American Bedroom. Here is Part One of our conversation. - Katie

K: Barb, I’m really excited to have this time to talk with you - thank you! Ever since you connected with Confluence over Instagram I’ve wanted to interview you for the readers here. I wonder if you could begin by filling us in on what you were doing before American Bedroom kind of, leapt into the public eye - where do you feel like you “started”?

B: Yes, yeah - so, I've been shooting since the 80s, so of course, I started with film and shot film for a good 20 years and then moved into digital. So I have that kind of perspective. I've also come a long way around because I started as an art and street photographer in art school. I never wanted to be a commercial photographer, and ya know, then to earn a living, I became a commercial lifestyle photographer. I signed with a stock agency and produced stock for many, many years and did a lot of commercial work for companies like Arm & Hammer and Merck Pharmaceutical, and all of that stuff was all lifestyle. Of children, mainly, so I was a real kind of precursor to a lot of what I see happening now with documentary family photography - because I was shooting that stuff like the 80s even. So that approach is embedded in me, it’s what I chose to do when I used to do portrait shoots.

K: Was the documentary aesthetic that you were shooting, your own personal aesthetic, or was someone asking you to produce it?

B: That was me. I tried to steer people away from staring in the camera. I built a whole backyard - with a swing and a natural garden and a fish pond and my whole theory was, let the kids just play. I just let them play. I remember when I used to [do in-person sales] and I used to make these beautiful slide shows to music, and I would show all different aspects of children, color, black and white, I'd show them running away from the camera and walking back toward them camera, not a lot of smiles and all this. And it took a while - I became known as a very expensive photographer who shot the back of children [laughing], but I explained it once to one client like this: the session was two sisters of the beach, kind of holding hands just kind of running through the water. It's a very simple photograph - their hair's blowing in the breeze. The parents really wanted this other one of them staring in the camera. And I said, "You’ve got to jump forward 10 years when these girls are going to be in college and that is going to be a true thing - this moment of their childhood. So now you have captured a moment of childhood rather than just faces that are gonna continuously change. You can get little pictures of their face, how it's changing, but THIS is iconic."

And it took a long time for them to agree, but they agreed and they bought it. So, I saw the father, like, 10 years later in the bank, and he came up to me and he said, "You were so right," he's like, "Oh my God!"

K: Isn't that great? I've had moments with my clients like that, too. Where I photographed their babies and now the kids are six and seven years old. I hear back from them too saying "Thank you so much for getting those photos while we were just giving the baby the bottle, the stuff we didn't think we wanted and now, yeah, that's the most connected to who we really are.” The baby in a blanket on the bed, well, yeah, that's identical to every other baby in a blanket shot.

B: Well, one thing I can suggest on that is for that kind of for portraiture is give them a little bit of what they want, but really front-load it with real moments. Then you reach the emotions of the people - they’d see their photos and be crying.

K: I've always loved when my clients tell me, "You made me cry," I'm like, “Yeah, I have the weirdest job in the world. My goal is to make my clients cry uncontrollably.”

From Home Town, by Barb Peacock

From Home Town, by Barb Peacock

B: Right - that’s when you’ve hit the mark. OK, well, I migrated from that work, as my kids are getting older, and I had more time. The whole time that my kids at home, I’m doing all the commercial work, and some portrait work and all that, but I was still working on photographing my "Home Town" [project]. I was able to compile all that work which started being shot on a 4 x 5 camera, then with a two and a quarter camera, a 35 millimeter film camera, to digital over, like, 30 years.

K: Yeah, I heard you talk about this on The Candid Frame [podcast]. And I was riveted with how you progressed in that project through your own skill-set improving, and through different types of cameras, and how you just adapted over the course of time with what tools you were using.

B: Yeah, I mean, yeah, exactly, we're all resilient, I think, and we all kind of have a path that we think we want.

And then things come up along the way - I was married and I had kids and I just put my energy where it needed to be, which was my children and making money and just to survive and live. And then as things loosen up, my kids got older and more independent and once they were pretty much on their own, I had finished “Home Town” and I started “American Bedroom”, which I had a lot more time to do at that point.

K: I would love to ask you, because I'm a mom of a seven-year-old: during the time you were working on “Home Town”, but then also doing the parenting and the work that you needed to make money, did you ever deal with times of feeling frustrated about your progress in your personal work?

B: Oh yeah, yeah, I absolutely did.

K: Tell me something about that, because I feel like I find myself in that place a lot right now, and I'd love to hear what it was like for you.

B: Yeah, absolutely, and that's something that I really, really can remember. So, 1996 is kind of a key pivotal time for me. I had started my business in 1989, believe it or not, and I started in a strip mall, and I had a little studio behind a frame shop, and I just put out front these natural pictures of kids and fields and black and white pictures, and I got a lot of business. My husband and I bought a house in the same town where I grew up and I had an older son from a previous, well, entanglement, shall we say. And then I got married and I had two kids. So then from 1990 up to '96, I was getting my commercial business going. I was doing well with stock and also some portraits, and then, I was finally in the black! So I was like, "Oh this is amazing!" So I did some upgrades to my studio, and then I was like, "Oh! I can take a course at Maine Photographic Workshops (which is now Maine Media)"

So then - I studied with Mary Ellen Mark.

K: I'm so jealous

B: Haha, yeah. And so I studied with her and I met a woman there who's now of my best friends, then one of her best friends is now another best friend, so like, the three of us are friends for life from that class! But yes, studying with [Mary Ellen Mark], really put me back in contact with my personal work. I started to work harder on Hometown, and then three or four years later, I studied with Eugene Richards. I don't know if you're familiar with him.

K: Oh yes!

From Home Town, by Barb Peacock

From Home Town, by Barb Peacock

B: Okay, then I don't need to say anymore, do I? No you get it? He is totally genius! So studying with him was really incredible... and I was driving home from [Maine Media] and - I'll never forget this - because he showed his work, and we all showed our work. And after the workshop, I am driving home, and I had this moment where I was feeling like, Ok: I have to accept my mediocrity. This is what I'm thinking on my drive home, that there are certain artists in the world that make it because of their artistry, because of their hard work and because they're talented and everything. And I was feeling at that time, I can only ride so high, and this is just me being honest with myself. I held on to that feeling for a long time, and it wasn't until I studied later a year or two later, with Ernesto Bazan, (and then I ended up studying with him three times) that I really, really cranked up the volume. I finally said to myself, "You know what, if you wanna be good, you gotta take better pictures. Just solid, better pictures." I just gave myself that talk. It sounds simple, but it's not simple! You can do the hard work.

K: Yeah, it's not simple, at all. And I think, speaking from my own experience, being in the place of doing that hard work during the time that you also have lots of other obligations and problem-solving of parenting and life to handle - well, it's a challenging mental place to be in.

B: Yeah, it is. I think it is. I think if you can keep a foot in - I think of it as all these things in a circle, the chaos and everything - but if you can keep one foot in, keep your toe wet. I think that's super important. And that's the thing I think I would tell people that are in your position with young children and you're trying to do your thing and you've gotta make money, and there's so many hats to wear: I think that the one thing that we have in common is that we all have passion. So you keep that passion high, whether it's a family portrait or to your own personal work, but you keep that toe in, keep it wet, and then slowly but surely kids get more independent and you make... You have a little bit more money, maybe you can do this or that, or take a trip or take a workshop and you just keep going at it and chipping away at it. I'm not 35. and on my second book, ya know.

K: Same - and that gets to me. The world is so full of those talented 35-year-olds on their second book. I'm 42. I struggle a lot with feeling a decade behind.

It matters — all those moments of child-rearing and working hard and sleepless nights and feeling inadequate, all of that. It all rolls into one, when you finally kinda go: Okay, this is my time, this is what I’m gonna do, and I’m really gonna discover the type of photography that I wanna do on a personal level...

B: Yeah, I wouldn't put much stock into that. I don't think it's important. I always think of Julia Margaret Cameron - because she didn't get a camera until she was 50. Okay, it doesn't matter how old you are, what matters is the quality of your work, it matters the life that you've lived. It matters -- all those moments of child-rearing and working hard and sleepless nights and feeling inadequate, all of that. It all rolls into one, when you finally kinda go: Okay, this is my time, this is what I'm gonna do, and I'm really gonna discover the type of photography that I wanna do on a personal level, It just happens to everyone at a different time. Some people start early, and they burn out and they end up being a musician, or they end up being something else. But it's really hard not to compare yourself, I know. I think we have to always look at it as our own path and know that everything counts, everything that we've done in our life, it all counts.

K: This is really meaningful. I think there are a lot of people like myself who are going to want to hear this. I appreciate that perspective. So wise.

B: Yeah, just... Well, some of this is age. And I look at myself as the underdog. Okay, so I published the book for “Home Town”, I self-published it. I didn't want to do a digital book, so I raised the money, it was really expensive. It was like $22,000 to print 500 books, and I sold them, and I gave some to the town, and I made a little bit of a name for myself with that. I got out there a little bit. And remember I didn't grow up with social media - I did all that without it. Some of us came into that a little bit later. So then, when I had time to start a new project, which was American Bedroom, I started right off the top with putting up some images on Instagram, it was like an overnight hit! I really started gain more followers and then I won the Getty, which was a big deal.

K: Oh god, yes, how did that feel?

B: Oh my God, it was like... Yeah, think about this. Okay, so I'm really a documentary photographer, not a photojournalist, which, probably most of us wanted to be photojournalists. But you really can't be a married woman with children and be a photojournalist. So I know a lot of single women photojournalists that are never going to... well it's crazy, it's a crazy world made of mostly single people because they're traveling all the time.

Anyway, where I was to receive the award was in Perpignan, France, at Visa Pour L'image. It's a big, big, big photojournalism festival. It's happening actually right now, as we're speaking.

K: I know, I'm painfully aware, always, of the festivals I'm missing!

B: Oh my God, yeah. Well, this is a serious freaking serious festival. And so there I am one of the five winners and the other four winners - one other woman, three men - they're all so hard-core photojournalists, and I am the only sort of art documentary photographer, that wins this award. And I felt like, "Oh my God, I am a fish out of water. I shouldn't really have won. I shouldn't really be here." And the weird thing was, my work stood out, it was really crazy, it stood out because it was so different.

K: I can see that! Photojournalists make beautiful and amazing images, but there's a quality to them that's characteristic of photojournalism, and I think that's really different from the more slow-burn documentary work that has to be created over time instead of in short bursts.

B: And, I would say 85% of what's on exhibits at Visa pour l'mage is all conflict photography. t's conflict, it's super serious. And then there's environmental coverage and this other stuff. Then after we gave our talk, I had this German magazine editor come right up to me and say "We really love your work." And more people were pulling me aside, and then the big thing that happened was at a cocktail party, like the next day, one of the representatives from Getty, came over and they said, “The Guardian wants to run an article and they would like to have more than the five images that you give Getty for promotion. They said they would like more than that.” And so, the Guardian ran an article like, the next day.

K: Wow - that had to have just been overwhelming. I mean, the sky opened up!

B: Yeah, it was a little crazy. And then when I got home, the next two weeks, every morning I woke up to a new request for images and an article -- from Germany, from Italy, from Japan, from you name it, what country, every day? And I was doing it all by myself. I have no one to guide me or tell me what to do or anything. So every day, I would just pick up my phone and I'd look at it, and I'd say to my husband,” Okay, well, this one is from... Sweden.”

So what I did was I had all the images that I had taken so far, that were good images, on Pixieset. There were maybe 30 images that I had, and I would just send them the link and say, pick the images you want for your article. So I wasn't giving out the same five images. Then they would interview me - either be a call like this, or it would be questions in an email, and if that just going on for two weeks and then the whole thing kinda went viral. Because what happens is, the companies that call you and legitimately interview you, those interviews go on the internet, and then other sites can just share those. So something like Bored Panda can just pick up what's already been published.

So when Bored Panda picks it up, it got millions of views. That was really weird because, to be honest, people were making very strange comments and that's not really the intended audience. This work is supposed to be on gallery walls and understood as such. So, I never read past like two comments on the boards. It got a little out of control, and people are like, "Oh it's cool, it went viral!" And I'm like, "Well kind of,"

The thing is, it's not a finished piece - it's only like a year and a half in and it's not done.

(Part Two will publish tomorrow!)

All photographs are copyrighted by the photographer and used here with permission.

Follow Barb Peacock on IG @Barb.peacock_street

and online at www.barbarapeacock.com