In Barry Rosenthal’s fine art photographs of objects picked from coastal areas of New York Harbor, once-familiar forms have lost much of their original shape and purpose. With objects crushed by storms and carved by blowing sand, Rosenthal makes it his challenge to take his catch back to the studio, create a narrative and give them a new life. Whether glass bottles, plastic eating utensils or petrol containers, the objects represent personal and cultural history and memories fond and haunting.
“The basis for my work with ocean-borne trash is the community of objects that I’m able to create,” he says. “I do think of them as a community — one where the objects all play well with their neighbors.”
ASMP: How long have you been in business?
Barry Rosenthal: I’ve had a studio for more than 30 years.
ASMP: What initially prompted you to join ASMP in the late 1970s?
BR: At that time, ASMP was the only professional photography organization. It offered a fledgling photographer the business guidance that was not offered while studying photography in college. In addition, many of the giants in the industry were board members.
ASMP: What do you consider the most valuable aspect of your ASMP membership?
BR: Today, I would say it’s the New York chapter’s BrainTrust programs. These are peer groups where members discuss personal goals and help one another achieve them.
ASMP: What has made you stay an ASMP member continuously since 2002?
BR: ASMP meets my needs. I don’t really need an organization to describe my work.
I am a photographer. Whether it is fine art, advertising or editorial, I am a photographer.
Joining the board of ASMP/NY has given me ownership in the organization. I can be part of the change and growth of the organization. I like community organizations.
ASMP: What is the most important relationship you’ve formed through your ASMP membership?
BR: Once again, I have to say that my relationships with my fellow BrainTrust members have been solid. We are there to support each other and push each other to get out of our comfort zone. It can be hard to tell a colleague that he/she is going in circles and not making progress, but in the end we come out with specific steps and goals a for a better outcome. Being a photographer can be lonely; with the BrainTrusts, we collaborate and feel we’re not working in a bubble.
ASMP: Do you have a mission statement? If so, please describe it.
BR: I would say I have a vision statement, more than a mission statement.
I really wanted to do things differently in this segment of my career. I needed to have more control over my life and my work. Now, I produce work that steadily sells over a long period of time. I don’t have to be reactive and drop everything I’m doing for a three-week assignment and then come back and try to pick up the pieces. I have continuity in my practice that I really appreciate. Although I have imagery with several stock agencies, the current stock business models don’t work for me, so I have not contributed new work for about eight years. When an assignment comes along I generally accept the work, but I do not go after assignment work.
I think of myself as an Octopus, having my work going in eight different directions and places. My vision is to make my own kind of pictures and sell them in multiple markets. Each collection has a brand identity. I will support, market and expand each collection to challenge the market to find a new uses for my work. I want to make products with my images. Creative collaboration is the way. If each of my octopus arms brings in a certain amount of income every month then I will achieve my goal.
Currently, I have an artist residency at chashama in Brooklyn, a studio with 100 other artists, and I sell my work through two galleries, Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco and The Barn Gallery at Stoneover Farm in Lenox, Massachusetts.
ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?
BR: These days, I am a fine artist. I mostly shoot still life now. In the past I worked in the commercial assignment world, shooting portraits of bankers for annual reports, doing advertising work, stock and lifestyle. My career started as an assignment photographer, first shooting fashion followed by lifestyle, annual reports and stock.
ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?
BR: My curiosity. Equipment means tools to me. Tools help you make things. If there were a tool that would take me from concept to finished work on a faster path, I would buy that tool. Until then, I’d struggle along with current technology.
ASMP: What is unique about your approach? What sets you and your work apart from other photographers?
BR: I use sculpture in my work. I slowly build a composition. My sense of light is important in setting my work apart. I don’t think of lighting as a still life person might, I think of light as if I’m shooting a portrait. My sense of proportion and what is enough to tell a story is also important. I don’t really know how others approach their work, but for me, it seems I choose the long road. Sometimes I have a concept in mind for an image, and the final piece turns out totally different, sometimes it turns out as I saw it! Sorting is important to me. When I look at the items I’ve collected, I sort them in many ways; by color, shape, usage and on and on.
ASMP: You are quoted as saying you are “addicted to collecting.” How long have you been a collector and where and how did you begin? How and when did you start working on this particular series?
BR: Collecting is something I began in childhood. I collected baseball cards, and soda bottles to redeem for cash. Collecting was a way to learn about something I was interested in. I would go to the beach and find things. I liked old things. Objects always seemed mysterious to me. I wanted to know more. How did they get there? Where were they from? I thought I would be an archeologist. I wanted to dig stuff up. I never found anything of value, but I found a value in the process. Exploring and following my sense of wonder was the lesson. Leap ahead to when I found photography in college, I saw a way of recording these encounters. At that time I was interested in photographing people, I developed a desire for doing long-term projects. The connection to my childhood experiences may not be there in the literal sense of collecting, but I was collecting experience, going back and repeatedly inserting myself in deeper explorations.
ASMP: You mention that Floyd Bennett Field is your favorite place to collect. What other locations do you gravitate to for collecting and why? What is special about these places that make them good for collecting?
BR: I go wherever the pickings are good. Floyd Bennett Field is part of the national park system. It’s the only place in New York City that you can get a permit to go camping.
I used to go there to shoot botanicals. By being there and being curious I discovered that the shore was thick with years of accumulated trash. It gets more difficult over time to keep mining the same area. I’ve been lucky to find the variety of objects that I have. I have cleaned certain stretches of the beach there and I always go back. There is more to be uncovered. But at the same time I have to expand my searching into new areas. There is no guarantee of success with collecting this way. It’s scavenging, not shopping. So if I find a new idea, I need to find more of same stuff to make a complete collection. Collecting stimulates new ideas. There is always a surprise waiting for me.
ASMP: Do you need to get special access to any of the places where you like to collect? Is there a day, time of day or other considerations that makes for ideal conditions for your collecting? Do you wear any protective gear or gloves when collecting?
BR: It would be fun to have a boat and be able to land on some of the small islands in the harbor. Low tide is when I go collecting. I wear rubber boots and pants, long sleeves and a hat. The best time is an overcast day. I can see into all the little nooks a better without the sun and the cast shadows.
ASMP: How much of what you collect gets used in your images vs. how much you recycle? Do you also recycle the items from the pieces you create or do you hold onto them for future use?
BR: I’ve analyzed many aspects of my work, but never figured a ratio of total pickings versus what shows up in my finished work. I think my efficiency is pretty high. There is not a lot of waste in my practice. I would say better than 50 percent. It’s rare to use everything I find for any given theme. That being said, there will always be the need to pick more and edit the theme much tighter. Recently, the background in a photo that was commissioned by National Geographic Brazil was licensed for use as a cover for Veja São Paulo magazine. The whole image is a self portrait of me in my studio surrounded by my collections spilled out on the floor. The editors saw this photo not as a portrait but a colorful collection of trash to feature on their cover. So they cropped my half of the picture off and still had a lovely still life. I think my efficiency ratio just went up.
I have a hard time letting go of this stuff. I recycle what I don’t want or can’t safely store. The oil bottles and the antifreeze containers had to be recycled. They leak and off-gas. But I have many collections stored away in my library of trash in the studio. There are several reasons. I plan to make installations of the collections to show along with my photographs. My primary interest is photography, but I cannot deny that a good portion of what I do involves sculpture. Thus the raw materials have a value. Lastly, having that library has saved me when I’ve run short of one or two objects and can’t complete a piece. The only problem is, where do I store the blue combs — in the blue collection or with the combs? Maybe I’ll find a librarian to help me cross-reference.
ASMP: At first glance your images appear to be about shape and color and then there is the intrigue with the items. Based on viewer response to your work, do people tend to respond most to color, form, composition, specific objects or do the responses vary widely?
BR: What I shoot is disgusting. I’ll admit that I want to shock the audience. If I can get an “ew that’s disgusting” reaction, then I’m happy. If by intrigue you mean the interaction between the objects, then my mission has been accomplished. Yes, I work the sculptural aspect to the point where an image like “Blue Ocean” is alive with vignettes, whimsical stories and overlapping imagery of playthings gone crazy. The bonus is the color. How could there be so much trash in that one hue of blue? I had more blue, but it was either too red or too green. I didn’t matter. I didn’t need it.
ASMP: What is your process of organizing the objects for your “Found in Nature” series? How do you decide which items go together? Is it by color, type of item or other considerations?
BR: I look to tell a story with one picture. The idea behind “The Grid” is the design or architecture of common plastic home products and toys. I noticed how well assembled a laundry basket is. Light and strong and built to let the air flow through it. Most plastic shovels are designed to withstand the stresses of digging in wet sand and not breaking and injuring the child playing with it. Unfortunately this design is helping these household items live much longer lives as trash than the life they were originally built for. The theme of “The Grid” then allowed me to build figures, houses and abstract masks. I narrowed down the color to yellow/orange, black and off white. Limiting the color helps me make a more focused piece. Again, these are found objects and are not painted to fit the color story.
On the most basic level, the composition of the “Soles” is divided into left and right shoes. I had many more modern shoes, flip flops and sneakers but mixing the old and new didn’t work. So, back to the beach. I found more old soles but not enough and I had to make another trip. Finally I had enough to finish the piece.
ASMP: Please describe your workflow. How much time do you spend per image in terms of the whole process; deciding which items to shoot, arranging the items, lighting, shooting, post production/editing, and so on?
BR: I can spend a month working on one piece in the studio. At the beginning of a new piece, I spend a lot of time looking at a collection spilled out on the floor. I’ll start to organize a small group of pieces just to get a feel for what can be done with these things. In the middle stage, much of my time spent tweaking the arrangement. The last thing I do is light the piece.
Early on, I tried shooting one or two objects, but this just didn’t have the same power. Luckily, I found a way of expressing the power of my narrative. I want to use repetition to drive home a point. Quantity is important. How it’s presented counts. Lighting counts.
It is difficult to find the hook or the theme to each new idea. I experiment and I fail. I start again. Sometimes I try five or six times or over a period of years. It is not the only thing I do. I’ll find another collection to pick up. I have a growing collection of combs and brushes that I’ll eventually figure out. But I’ll accumulate more until I overcome whatever the obstacle is. Some pieces take a month or more to arrange, light and shoot.
ASMP: What type of equipment do you shoot with for this series? Does any of the gear you use for this series differ from your other work?
BR: Ten years ago I bought a medium-format digital camera. I wanted a project that would get me out of the studio and allow me some time to work in nature. I liked the early botanical drawings and thought this was a good way to start. After some experimenting, I came up with an approach that gave me exciting results and heightened my interest in pursuing this project further.
I do want a certain high quality from my equipment. I use the same equipment for all kinds of work. I have a technical camera that I use in the studio and outside. The digital back is my transformer, going from medium-format camera to the 4-by-5.
ASMP: You mention that the object groupings are large scale and that you have a specially built rig to hold the camera. What size are the groupings when they are ready to be photographed? From what height do you shoot these compositions?
BR: For down shots I never look through a camera. I center it, level it, tether it and build the composition under the camera on the floor. I don’t go much above eight feet for down shots. The three-to-four ratio that the chip covers is same ratio I fill with objects on the set. Some of the layouts are seven feet on the long side.
For perspective and deep focus pictures, I use the yaw-free focusing tricks that a technical camera allows.
ASMP: Please describe your specially built camera rig. How does this work and what purpose does it serve?
BR: This is my own invention. It is low tech and ideal for my purposes. I only use this for down shots. Four C-stands hold the two rails that are the standards from steel shelving that can be found all over New York. A tripod head is bolted to a cross bar. The rig allows the camera to be suspended above the set and allows me to move around the set easily. Because of its minimal profile, my “camera stand” does not interfere with the lighting.
ASMP: How do you light the images? You mention that your arrangements “create a flat yet strangely three-dimensional image,” is this 3-D quality an effect of the lighting? If so, please elaborate.
BR: The 3-D effect is a mystery to me. All I know is early on when shooting botanicals, I would leave a print on the table and someone passing by would always try to pick up the objects in the photograph. It has to do with how I am lighting the objects in the original photograph but also the lighting conditions when viewing the print.
ASMP: Do you do much postproduction on the images? If so, please describe the software you use and your process.
BR: My approach is very traditional. My tools are digital. I shoot tethered to a laptop connected to a 24-inch monitor. The work is done on set and in camera. I tweak the positioning of every piece on the set after seeing it on the monitor. When I am ready, I’ll make a final exposure. Photoshop is used to do some cleanup and prep the image for printing. The images are not made from stacking layers and compositing images. The basis for my fine art work is the community of objects that I am able to create. I do think of them as a community. One where the objects all play well with their neighbors. Layering objects would be the antithesis of what photography means to me.
ASMP: You recently collaborated with Uncommon Goods on a playful series of drinking glasses screened with a silhouette from your “PopTops” image. How and when did this opportunity come about? Was there a contract or written agreement involved? Please describe the process from initial contact through to the finished product.
BR: Uncommon Goods (UG) is an online marketplace offering creatively designed, high-quality merchandise at affordable prices that strives to work in harmony with the environment. I’ve always had a desire to license my images past the publishing genre. I approached UG for product guidance and the development director saw potential for my images their product line. UG and my social and environmental values are aligned, so it’s a good collaboration. After we signed the licensing contract, UG created the graphic and asked me for my signature for production. I was thrilled to know that my signature had value! UG then created samples for my approval. The glasses were printed and sourced in the United States. The product process takes a minimum of six months from concept to final execution.
ASMP: Do you have other collaborations or partnerships in place or in the works? If so, please describe them.
BR: I have recently been contacted by a licensing agency and we are currently in negotiations.
ASMP: This past June, the New York Times did an article on your Found in Nature series. Please describe any contacts or opportunities that resulted from this exposure or other recent press about your project.
BR: The Times story opened up many new ventures for me and I’m sure there are more opportunities to come. Signing with the Jack Fischer Gallery is a significant one. The nonprofit Green inspired Art invited me to speak at the Salmagundi Club in Manhattan and contact with the licensing agent came about because of the Times article. There were many inquiries for prints and the gallery is handling the print requests.
ASMP: Has your work and business been affected by the increased blurring of boundaries between commercial and fine art markets?
BR: I don’t market myself as a commercial photographer, yet I was up for a large ad campaign earlier this year. It was in my style. I was comfortable with the concept, but it didn’t come my way.
ASMP: Over the past few years you’ve been very involved co-chairing ASMP New York’s BrainTrust, and you participate in a group specifically focused on fine art. How influential has this group been to the success of your Found in Nature series, and/or any of your other projects? Please describe what kinds of input, advice and/or opportunities you’ve received from this group.
BR: I was invited into the Fine Art BrainTrust just about a year ago. Most of the groundwork I’ve done in the last four years was done with another BrainTrust named “The Experts.” It is a more general group and I’m the only one not involved in the assignment business. The group is diverse, in that everyone has their own niche and brand. We show work and talk business. This group has been there as I made my transition into fine art. They were there when I first proposed my ‘octopus’ idea.
We just had a review session where we started with what we promised to do two years ago. I was happy to be reminded of how far I’ve come.
ASMP: Are there any particular reference works you’ve consulted for inspiration or background in working on this series? Fiction or nonfiction writing, films, photography or other works of art and so on? If so, please name them.
BR: I did spend a lot of time looking at both historic botanical drawings and the German photographer, Karl Blossveldt. Each helped me form ideas for the two nature series that I began ten years ago. I did not look for inspiration for the Found in Nature series. I hope the work stands alone within the genre of trash art. I like what Tony Gragg did in the ‘80s when he worked with plastic trash. I like what Mandy Barker does today. I’m a fan of Vic Muniz. But we all do something different.
ASMP: You mention that with this project your art and politics have flowed together. Please explain this further.
BR: The art came first, but I can no longer ignore the state of our environment. I’m not talking about the casual tossing of trash on the street or out a car window. What I see is an industrial scale of calloused manufacturers skirting laws, an apathetic and overwhelmed public, and politicians who are willing to back big industry and not the world where generations to come will live. There exists a straight line from manufacturing to consumer to the ocean. Instead, there should be a circle, a closed loop: manufacturer, consumer, then back to the manufacturer. Take the plastic bottle back before it hits the ocean and create new products. This is not a new concept, but it’s time to take it seriously. I’ve been reading about the circular economy and the regenerative economy. I’m glad to see there are intelligent people working on new ways to achieve sustainability.
ASMP: What impact do you feel, or hope, your images have had on society in terms of our current environmental situation? Please describe any positive impact your work to date has had on environmental awareness.
BR: I really can’t say much about the impact. What I can say is in the area of personal responsibility. As a by-product of my collecting, I have cleaned, by myself, the places I use as a resource. People sometimes see what I am doing and thank me. The stuff I don’t keep gets recycled so it does not end up where I found it. However, my raw materials are on the increase when they should be what are on the endangered list.
ASMP: You’ve worked on other series of images such as Photobotanicus, Lost in Nature and a series of artist portraits. How does your Found in Nature series compare with the other work in terms of the exposure you’ve received and print sales?
BR: The biggest story is “Found in Nature” which went viral almost three years ago. The content of the images and their relationship to the environment has inspired many stories about my work online: Slate.com, FastCo.com, the Weather Channel, and in print: National Geographic Brazil, La Repubblica and Hestetika, Italy, GreenPeace in Germany, Maclean’s and L’Actualite in Canada. The Photobotanicus and Lost in Nature series have a following in the hospitality and healthcare industries. The portraits have a smaller market — the artists I photographed!
ASMP: Given that this series involves physical objects and three-dimensional forms, have you ever thought about extending your series to another medium such as sculpture or anything involving motion capture?
BR: Yes, there are several opportunities for me to create installations with my trash. I have not yet decided which one to pursue.
ASMP: Do you see any of these bodies of work becoming a book? If so, do you have anything currently the works? Please elaborate.
BR: Possibly in the future. At this time my work is included in a book to be published by Rizzoli.
ASMP: What is the most important business advice you’ve ever received?
BR: From my father: “Don’t have a partner.”
ASMP: Where do you ideally see yourself in five years time? Have you set any major personal or professional goals for yourself in the years ahead?
BR: I see more speaking engagements, which leads to museum shows and wider visibility. I see my practice becoming a more socially and environmentally conscious business. A series of books. I see a balance between keeping a fine art practice moving forward and broader business opportunities in the future. I see developing more signature licensing lines of products. Collaborating with scientists and environmental leaders in working to fix plastic pollution. I would like the opportunity to shoot in different parts of the world and to be able to broaden my collections from the world’s different cultures while, at the same time, to continue to broadcast the message about ocean pollution.