Capturing visual quiet
An interview with local photographer Katherine Barr
Katherine Barr's print titled "Monument Valley" is one of her more recent works and is now on display at the Karyn Gabaldon Gallery./Photo by Todd Newcomer

Have you noticed how noisy our world is becoming? We even have a term, "white noise," for the ambient sound in our environment. Perhaps one of the reasons so many are moving to the mountainous West is for some quiet, which at times, after a snowfall on an early Sunday morning, even downtown Durango has a stillness about it. The concept of quietude has intrigued photographer Katherine Barr for sometime and her interest is not simply an auditory stillness but a visual tranquility as well. Last week, Katherine and I spoke at her home surrounded by some of the black-and-white photographs she has created.

JM: You say that you are drawn to the quiet in images. To my sensibility, your photos have a minimal amount of contrast, which is calming. Is this depiction of whiteness and visual quiet intended as a metaphor?

BARR: When I am out shooting in nature, I experience an internal quietude as well as the quietness in nature itself. This is an underneath quietness, for often there is both external noise and motion, like nearby traffic or wind, as well as internal noise such as the mind's chatter or excitement. Emotionally, I was drawn to the expression of quiet and calm that to me seems apparent in white. This quiet that lies beneath noise and motion seems always to be present and as time goes on, I am more able to contact it.

JM: Tell me about the circumstances that lead to your interest in photography.

BARR: I have always been a "visual" person. When I was in my late 30s, kind of a late bloomer, I had the opportunity to take pictures, at first with a video camera when I worked for a video production company. This was in the late 80s, and the video camera's viewfinder would shimmer when the focus was just right. I didn't know it at the time, but I was training my eye to be interested in light. Eventually I moved to using a still camera. When I was out with a camera, I felt at ease and had a sense of coming home. Then, when I discovered black-and-white film, I couldn't get enough; I wanted to learn everything.

JM: You shot your first roll of black-and-white film not by intention, but because the photo shop had no color film available. You mentioned that the moment you saw the contact sheet, you "fell in love with black and white." You also won a few awards from this very first roll of black-and-white film. How did this unexpected praise affect you?

BARR: My first reaction was one of disbelief! Then, as time went on, I began to incorporate praise of my work as external validation of "my eye" and to have more confidence in the intuitive process involved in taking a photograph. Recently, one of my photographs, "Laying Down," won Best of Show in the Women Foto Annual II Competition in Chicago. Although it certainly feels good to have my work recognized and praised, I now deeply know that my internal creative process and inspiration are unaffected by someone liking or disliking my photographs.

JM: Good photography requires both technical and aesthetic skills. What is compelling about shooting and developing pictures?

Katherine Barr relaxes with her photo titled "Cape Cod" at the Karyn Gabaldon Gallery last week before the opening of her show./Photo by Todd Newcomer

JM: Good photography requires both technical and aesthetic skills. What is compelling about shooting and developing pictures?

BARR: Photography definitely uses both sides of the brain and is, therefore, compelling and engaging to me. Photography is my attempt to recreate, in images, my experience. I consider each print to be a simple, reflective study. First I see what I want to shoot, then I visualize the final print and proceed accordingly. I shoot almost exclusively with an old Japanese 4-by-5 field camera. It was a gift from photographer Dale Anderson. I am so fond of and comfortable with this camera that when it's mounted on the tripod and I move it from place to place, I cradle it in my arms like a baby.

I continue to enjoy doing my own darkroom work and printing my own photographs. I take much inspiration from the beautiful prints of other photographers, past and present, and am challenged to continue improving my own printing. As a visual person, I am always seeing pictures, and I shoot what catches my eye, which is primarily light. I find light magical and inspirational, particularly the dawn light. Yet to be able to express this "magic" in a print, the technical aspects of shooting, developing and printing have to be understood. Over the years, many local people have kindly helped me to learn the technical aspects, particularly in the darkroom, including Mike Rosso, Dale Anderson and the late John Polatty.

I am not after "capturing" anything with my camera. Life is indivisible, and I don't believe that one can freeze a moment in time. That's not what a photograph expresses to me. It is everything that I am bringing to it and everything that is happening out there. I don't see any difference between how moods inform perceptions and how the weather informs nature that's what's indivisible.

JM: You have been practicing a form of Buddhist mediation for the past several years. How does your meditation practice weave with your creative practice?

BARR: A meditation practice allows my mind to calm down, to see more clearly. I can better notice simply "what is" and my vision is less obscured by how "I" want things to be. I get in my own way when I am reactive, involved in and defending my own story, my own likes and dislikes. To be open and present allows unique creativity to emerge, less encumbered - as Martha Graham said, "to keep the channel open." Sometimes, when I am out in nature to take pictures, I will close my eyes, relax, become aware of breathing and then, when I open my eyes, I have this sense of seeing life anew.

Katherine Barr's work is currently on display at Karyn Gabaldon Fine Art Gallery in Durango through March. Her work can also be viewed on her website,



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