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It’s quiet inside Olivia Barr’s early photographs. In one, a blocky chair faces a wall, vacant and cut through by a beam of sunlight. In another, tiny Styrofoam airplanes patrol the flat, white airspace of a ceiling. In each, the viewer is transported to someplace dusty, bright, and prefabricatedspecifically, a rented furnished apartment in Raheny, Ireland.
Barr’s Raheny series was created in 1999, over the course of a yearlong postgraduate stay in the Dublin suburb. “After college, I felt like I had developed an academic distance from my art,” she explains. “It was as if I liked everything, and I knew I needed to cleanse my system.” Over Christmas, she found herself home alone and unable to work the heating system. “It was so cold, so I took lots of pictures to keep busy,” she says.
The resulting color photos hint at a mix of loneliness and exhilaration at being alone. Varied lighting sources bring out sparks of green and pink on the close-up surfaces of household objects and create a shallow depth of field that smoothes everything into a surreal flatness. The result, says Barr, is “the killing of the real” in otherwise familiar subject matter. The series, her first solo show, was exhibited at Dupont Circle’s Conner Contemporary Art last spring.
Barr, a Northern Virginia native, is currently working in Berlin, where her latest photography project is being funded by a John J. McCloy Fellowship from the American Council on Germany. The programwhich sponsors only 15 Americans each year in such fields as agriculture, journalism, fine arts, and urban affairspromotes an exchange of ideas between young American professionals and their German counterparts.
Her winning proposal concept was “Berlin in Rooms,” which will examine the diverse city through fragments of the flats of its residents. The project is a departure from her previous personal focus, and Barr is finding the task of defining others through images challenging.
“I inflict a lot on the images,” she says, “so I am not naive enough to think that they can be portraits of a person’s life.” But quite a lot about someone can be revealed through a photo of one corner of his or her apartment, according to Barr; the trick is finding the story to fit in the frame. “In the flat that I am renting, the owner ran off to be with his girlfriend, and I am finding tampons everywhere. Her presence is all over his flat. But that would never come through in just a picture of a tampon. It would look like some feminist statement.”
Locating a diverse range of subjects is also proving to be tricky. Though she intends to explore the city district by district, many of her sessions so far have been with friends of friends. In the two months she has left on her three-month sojourn, Barr hopes to infiltrate the Sony Center, an upscale, steel-and-glass complex in the newly developed Potsdamer Platz area, as well as trailer parks in working-class sections of the city.
“It is difficult to walk up to total strangers and ask, ‘Could I take some pictures of your flat?’” she says. “But to a degree, I think that will be necessary to the success of the project.” Barr’s finished work will show at the Conner gallery next spring. Shauna Miller