Interview with Barb Peacock (Part Two)

Here is Part Two of our conversation with Barb Peacock. I’ve been wanting to chat with Barb 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. (Part One is here.) - Katie

K: Barb, let’s talk about process. You’ve just said that American Bedroom isn’t finished - though it’s gotten wide publication at this point, as well as some exhibits. I follow your Instagram, so I feel like I'm getting to see your process in real time - and sometimes I wondered, is the "process" the project or is there a final presentation that you're working toward, that we are getting to follow a long with, but, at some point will kind of fall away to make room for the finished product.

B: Oh yeah, yes. So basically, I'm trying to get to every state in the U.S. So it's kind of a challenging logistical thing which basically boils down to time that I'm able to travel, and what's possible financially.

I did win $10,000 from Getty, which was fantastic and I was able to go on five or six different trips - Detroit, to the South a few times, and I went out west. Always going as frugally as possible. Then I had a show here in Portland, Maine, and I sold five prints to the Lauder Foundation. You know, the Estee Lauder family - he collects... well, he has the biggest collection of cubism, $50 million worth of cubist art, which he donated to the MOMA. And his wife, she collected five prints from me, so that was good! That put me back on the road. And then sometimes I make a little bit of money from some interviews, or a private print sale, etcetera. I won a couple of other small things. So I just, when I have money, I travel.

K: Are you still doing grant applications?

B: Oh yes, ma'am! Yeah. Oh yeah. [laughs] And then I just wanna say that back to the Getty, I wanna tell people that I applied for everything under the sun, one fall, the fall of 2016, and I only had about a year and a half of the project under my belt, so it was a fairly new project. I applied for everything and then starting in the spring, I started getting the rejections, one after the other. Rejection after rejection. I thought, Okay, so maybe this, maybe this is not resonating. Maybe this is not what I think it is, maybe this project not good, maybe I'm not an artist, maybe I should just go get a job at Trader Joes, and not be an artist because I...

K: Those are such awful thoughts to deal with.

B: I know! It's true, you're so defeated. You feel alone, and you feel like I'm not... this isn't working... it's not... Why should I beat my head against the wall, and why maybe I should just be a Normal Person, right, not be an Artist. Right? I thought that way for a day. And then the next morning I shook myself out of it and I said, "What are you thinking, You? That's just ridiculous. Just keep going, and make better pictures. And I just told myself, if these pictures aren't good enough, I just have to make better pictures.” And then the next week I won the Getty award.

K: That's amazing. So it really wasn't about better pictures, it was really just about timing. I mean, good work, and timing.

B: Yeah, and the jury. The jury is composed of people, and they all bring their aesthetic to the table and they can sway one another.

K: And those juries are different on every cycle for all the different awards.

B: Yeah, in every cycle.

K: I don't ever wanna put anything down to just luck because there's so much hard work dedication that goes into the work that you present, but the fact is it also comes down to who are the people in that round of applications looking at it and what are they moved by?

B: Absolutely, absolutely. I applied to the Guggenheim year and I didn't win. And I'm just going to apply every year because there will be different juries. Also they say that you have to keep applying for that because it's rare that you win on the first time. And so I have to keep applying for everything that I can think of.

K: It's very comforting to hear that from you because more at the beginning or earlier stages of this journey of creating long-term projects and trying to put them out there and trying to find ways to keep them going, it's great to know that even the people that you look up to, who seem much farther down the path, you're sitting there doing the same kind of work for your project that I'm doing for mine.

B: Absolutely.

K: You've just got more time and more expertise under your belt,

B: And you have to be consistent, you know, I mean you have to have the drive and tenacity and all that. I think those people are the ones that will end up winning. You have to keep going - you can't falter. It is hard - it's been a long time for me, it's been a long time coming, but you just have to keep at it... And don't get discouraged.

K: And it sounds like all of the time that you're doing this work, you're still feeling really inspired with the project you're creating -enough to keep going on the trips, shooting.

B: Absolutely. Yeah, I love the project, I love the people I'm meeting. I love the process of it. I love what people are able to say about their lives throug the pictures, and then the statement. I love the experience of meeting someone who's willing to put themselves out there like that, and open up themselves within the most intimate room of our lives.

I don't want to overuse this word, but it's quite magical, during the whole session, because you have an intimacy between the two of us, or the three of us, how ever many people I'm photographing. There's a trust that's just an unspoken bond, which takes certain kinds of people - not everyone's gonna allow me to do it. For all the people that have said Yes, there's two or three people that said No. Yeah, so it's a very rewarding experience just on a human level, and then have coffee afterwards or sit and talk. I've had long experiences where I've spent a whole day with people; and I've spent short times like just 45 minutes with someone. So it's everything in between. The experience is very enriching, and it's deeply moving to share these experiences with people.

K: I'd love to ask, if you're willing to talk about it, what are the steps that you take to build that trust and intimacy. Obviously, it's going to be someone who's willing. They've self-selected, right?

B: They've invited you into their house, but is there a certain approach that you take to break down barriers quickly to find that comfort. Some people are completely open and they're ready for anything, and they're very honest. Those people are, maybe, a third of those who agree to the project. The older couple that I photographed you probably know what she's got the long gray hair - that's one of my favorite photographs and one of my favorite experiences. But when we got down this 45-minute dirt road to get to their house was crazy, we got there and they are the most natural people, just they're completely comfortable with who they are. And it's so beautiful to see that and witness it, and so we go up into their little loft - up their little ladder. I'm on a ladder photographing that, by the way.

So I say to them, "Well how do you guys sleep?" And they said, "Well, we sleep in the nude." I said, "Are you comfortable doing that?" That's what I usually ask. I never ask anyone to do anything specific. And they said, "Well sure, and he took off his clothes right way, he didn't care, and then she was slowly taking her clothes off and I'm saying to myself, "she's gonna take her underwear off to, and she did. So they were completely nude, and then they just cuddled and then they put their hands on each other - those beautiful hard-working hands and it was just like, a really peak photographic moment in my career, of my life, to photograph something like that. It was just so moving, a that's real gift. I look at that as a gift.

And then sometimes you have someone like this woman in Brooklyn. I had put out on Facebook that I was looking for people in Brooklyn, 'cause I was there and this woman wrote to me - she was a friend of a friend, and she said sure so I go there and they're in this probably $5-million dollar brown stone, in the fancy section of Brooklyn, I forget the name of it. So when people start editing what they're gonna do for me I'll let it go a little while. Yeah, so they got me a ladder and their room was really pretty in the light was coming in and I got them and she was very concerned about her hips - from her hips down and she didn't wanna show that part of her body. Okay, and I get that, I get that.

I mean, she was more like a pair shape or whatever, then up talk and a little bit heavier on the bottom, but in nice shape and but she just couldn't see that. So we're just going along and she's all covered up, and I just finally stopped photographing and I just said to them, Hey, you guys, I've got photos of a couple in a bed with white sheet just like this, I have the shot, I already have the shot.

I said, "This shot not going anywhere, I have to be honest."

And then when I said that I think the reality is like, Okay, maybe loosen up a little. So she didn't, she rolled her hip. And I said, "I'm just gonna pull it down just a little bit. I can see your S-shape, it's beautiful.: And she let me, and she ended up loving it. But sometimes I have to just say when I'm photographing, I see something I've seen it before, I already have this. I'll say that, and then people will sort of loosen up a little bit. And then other times people just loosen up because of the process, we might say, "Okay let's start here, we're a little covered up. Oh hey, let's take this off ... but it's not about nudity. A lot of them are nude because people are nude in their bedrooms and that's true to what they are.

A screenshot of the gallery Barb shows her subjects to help select poses and mood for their photograph.

A screenshot of the gallery Barb shows her subjects to help select poses and mood for their photograph.

I wanna be honest about it. Other people are dressed up in those girls out in Portland have the thigh highs on and they've got the push-up bras going and all that, and I'm showing their environment with all the cigarettes and blah, blah, blah. So it kind of depends and I just kinda don't push people, I ask them what they're comfortable with.

The other thing that's key here is I show my subjecs a gallery on Pixieset that is all paintings. They're all contemporary paintings, a few classical ones, but mostly contemporary paintings. And I say to them, "What attracts you... what do you like here and what would you like to emulate? Is there something here we can start from?"

A screenshot of the gallery Barb shows her subjects to help select poses and mood for their photograph.

A screenshot of the gallery Barb shows her subjects to help select poses and mood for their photograph.

And so they'll pick two or three that they like. And so they've already told me that what might be their comfort level visually. And so what happens is that trust is starting to build and they're like, "Oh this is cool. I've made a choice is what I like." I say to them, "this is not my picture of you, this is your our picture together of you. We're collaborating, this is your story, this is your voice, this is time for you to say who you are and what your world is." So they own it.

K: This touches on something that I find important and I look for in other photographers' work, and that is the idea of being collaborative with your subjects. Not waltzing in, whether it's someone's bedroom or someone's home town or an event someone is attending and imposing own interpretation on it, and just extracting something from them. But the idea of trying to understand who they are, and giving them space to give you that and then honoring it in the work that you make.

B: Yeah, that's their signature. The these images could potentially be around, and being seen in a hundred years or more, as an archive of this time in the history of our country. Everything that's in the photos is important.Both the surroundings, and then the person... And, when they realize that I think they open up a little bit, and they also take the process more seriously.

K: So the paintings that you show them, are these paintings you've selected because they inspire you?

B: Yeah, yeah, so I'm just completely crazy for these paintings. And most of them I find on one site. These paintings could be for anyone - same-sex partners, single women, or women with a lot of kids, single older people or whatever. Sometimes, let's say I'm going to New York next week and I know there's a young boy down there that I want to photograph with his friends. I'll pull images I think would work to the front, so that they see those right away.

K: One last question that I would love to ask you, and that is from the time you started shooting American bedroom to now, how do you feel like this project has changed you as an artist, as a photographer, as a person.

B: Yeah, I think it has changed me as an artist and a bit as a person because I think that it has sensitized me more to a person's story. A person's self-hood, if you would.

And so I think I’ve become more sensitized to people in general - to their stories. Everyone has a story, and everyone has something they would like to stay, and that it’s worth listening to every story.

When I walk through the door or when I introduced myself putting myself and that person on the same level to try to create a piece of art - we're doing it together. And so I think I've become more sensitized to people in general - to their stories. Everyone has a story, and everyone has something they would like to stay, and that it's worth listening to every story.

And so I meet a lot of people that I talk to. Just talk to - not even potentially going to photograph but I'm in general just more sensitive to human beings, or human-hood. Just opening your eyes up to smiling at people, and having a short conversation or whatnot. But I think that I've grown an awareness of that. I think it's through these experiences with these people - learning not to be judgmental, and not to always have an end game when you're meeting people, it doesn't always have to be about actually photographing them. It could just be about having a conversation or opening the door, for someone or just chatting with someone... just to not yield always to that want for the photograph.

Sometimes it's just nice to just talk to someone. Everybody needs someone just to talk to.

K: I have to say that I can see this coming through in the way that you share pictures from the project.

B: Well that's a huge compliment.

K: I think it's got to do with you asking for that statement, or getting one out of natural conversation, from each person and letting that be the caption to the image. Now, I love when you share more of your own thoughts [in your social media posts], but the fact that you let their statement be the source of information about the photo - that, to me, is a reflection of your sensitivity and awareness of other people's stories. To me that says you're not only listening, but you're synthesizing that with the image that you made.

B: I think that the statements have changed a lot from the beginning too, because in the beginning, I didn't even think about that, but then I realized that that was super important and I asked people at first to kind of make a comment about their living space, etcetera. But now, I don't say that anymore. Now I just say I just want a couple of sentences about your life and where you're at with your life right now.

K: Are these recorded conversations. Do you record when you have those talks after the photographs are taken?

B: I wish I would get to that. And I think that I really do need to do that. I think I need to just do more recording, but what I do is I ask them for the statement and I can ask them to give it to me within 48 hours, because if I don't get it in 48 hours, there is a good chance that I'll have to track them down and [ask again], and it's really hard. I've learned a little bit when I met maybe someone that's really living on the fringes, if it looks like they might be moving soon, or they're in a difficult situation, I get that statement there and then. I won't take a chance, or I'll take it out of our conversation.

And some people will stay in contact. Some people I don't just because the nature of things in life and everything, but there's some people I do stay in contact with, and I try to let them know if their picture is picked for a magazine or something. Some people are so proud. And one last thing I'll say is one thing that is really touching to me is that, how important a photograph can be to someone because to you and me, we're always taking photographs, we're always in that world, and we're always with people that were taking pictures of them, but some people, their last photograph that anyone took might have been their senior high school portraits. There's statistics about senior high school portrait being for some people, the only portrait that they'll ever have made of themselves. And for someone to ask to be in a project and to be part of something that is Art, that is about them, can be a very peak moment for them, right? I've photographed one gentleman in Atlanta, who is trans. He had just had his surgery, and I photographed him the whole time. I did not know that he was trans. I did not know that he had had surgery, anything like that, and he had a shirt off, and he's very, very muscular. I didn't see the scars under his chest or anything, and it was at the very end that he said, "You you know am trans." And I said "No, not at all."

He that photograph that I took of him lifting his daughter - his statement was so beautiful, he was so proud of that, it changed a lot for him, he posted it with his groups and they all encouraged him. Hhe was so proud of that, and then it was picked for an article in Germany and he just kept saying, "Oh can I get that magazine?" It just turned a page for him. And there's been other situations young girls who don't think well of themselves, they have an experience in front of the camera and then they feel more empowered to make a statement, and be who they are. So there's a lot of these really beautiful, kind of heroic moments that have happened. I think it's a testament to who we are as people, and that we really can help each other through. And this is just a right that's all it's just art. This is just Art. But you know, without art you wouldn't have the history of mankind.

K: I think all of us who were working on projects that involve engaging other people need to always have it in our minds that like, You're right, we're immersed in images all day, but that's not the case for everyone. And to have someone step into your life, and make a photo of you, whether it's a few minutes or a long collaboration where you've talked and planned, they still have this opportunity to collaborate and make something. People who aren't artists don't get that every day.

B: Yeah, you're right. That could be really transformative to them.

K: Barb, I'm so grateful that you took time to talk. I hope some of these questions were ones that you answered a million other times.

B: No, you didn't ask how the project started. So that's great!

K: No! Everybody and who's reading Confluence should be able to find all of that about you if they don't know it, already.

B: Yes, good!

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

Follow Barb Peacock on IG @Barb.peacock_street

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