Cindy Sherman in 1985: Photographing the Photographer

On October 31, 1985, Halloween day, photographer Jeannette Montgomery Barron packed her trusty Hasselblad and tripod and arrived for a portrait session in downtown New York. His subject was famed photographer and artist Cindy Sherman.

Sherman once said, “I wish I could treat every day like Halloween and dress up and go out into the world like some quirky character.” But on Halloween, she wouldn’t adorn herself in wigs and take self-portraits “like the jaded seductress, the unhappy housewife, the abandoned lover and the vulnerable naive” as Kristen Gaylord, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow , Department of Photography, MOMA described some of its characters.

When Barron arrived, Sherman was dressed in a simple shirt and trousers; this is how she was photographed. Barron just assumed she wanted to be photographed that way and didn’t ask her to change or get into any of her characters.

Barron was a little nervous as she walked into the famous downtown photographer’s studio.

“I always get nervous before a shoot – even now – but that goes away once I’m in the door and behind the camera,” Barron said. PetaPixel. “She [Sherman] seemed quite comfortable, but I really don’t know! I hope she was.

Simple camera technology

Barron, whose photography mantra is “keep it simple”, placed his Hasselblad 500 C/M on a tripod (as that was his preferred mode with the rather heavy square format camera) and slapped a Carl Zeiss Sonnar 150mm f/4 (a simple four-element, three-group design that took great pictures even in earlier uncoated versions). The 120 film was Tri-X 400, and she exposed 4-5 rolls within an hour of her passing.

The shoot lasted “less than an hour, I think”, recalls Barron. “I never stay too long.”

Everything was shot in available window light – no reflectors.

“Maybe once or twice in my career [I have used a reflector],” she explains. “I hate those things – I can never bend them!”

Barron placed her in Rembrandt lighting from the windows and measured the incident light hitting her face as she was concerned about getting a good exposure.

“I put it in this light – it just felt right,” the photographer says. “I’ve always used a Sekonic light meter. I always was [worried about correct exposure] and always will be. I think worry keeps me on my toes.

“I’ll let you in on a little secret: back in the day, I sometimes used a softening filter, especially when photographing women.” [She lets me in on her secret when I tell her that I am seeing something unique in the soft skin tones.]

This simple arrangement allowed Barron to operate on his own without any assistants or helpers.

“I only had assistants on commercial jobs,” she says. “When I do a portrait, I like the intimacy of being alone in the room with the subject.”

Barron started young in photography, very young!

Barron became familiar with roll film when she started shooting with a Brownie Kodak at age nine in Atlanta, where she was born. Next was a Polaroid Swinger.

“Around 14 or 15, I bought a second-hand Mamiya 35mm camera,” recalls the portrait painter. “When I was in my twenties, I bought a used Hasselblad 500 C/M and it was my favorite camera for years. I’ve gone through a few Hasselblad bodies and many film magazines since then – I still love this camera.

“My father was a very good amateur photographer. He had a darkroom and taught me how to print. It was a light bulb moment for me. I became a full-time photographer in my early twenties.

Barron was so eager to get into photography that she left college at the end of her freshman year to study at the International Center of Photography at its original location on Fifth Avenue in New York City. She spent three years there, from 1977 to around 1980.

At that time, Kathryn Bigelow (the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar with The Hurt Locker) and Barron’s brother, Monty Montgomery, were filming without love with the first leading role of William Dafoe. She landed the job of still photographer and learned a lot from watching the cinematographer and the lighting crews.

Barron’s real love was portraiture, and before she got to Sherman’s door she had taken quite a few portraits – 20 or 30.

“For the 1985 Halloween Day portrait, I called Cindy ahead and made an appointment to come and photograph her in her studio,” the photographer recalls. “That’s how I did it back then. It was very simple, actually – no emails or texts, just a phone call. Hard to imagine these days.

The portfolio of books and limited editions

Fast forward to 2020, and NJG’s Nick Groarke contacted Barron right after seeing an article From Warhol to Basquiat: Behind a Telling Set of Artist Portraits in The Guardian.

“He wanted to discuss the possibility of making plans with me,” Barron explains. “As it was during the pandemic and we also live on different sides of the ocean, we had many Zoom meetings and virtually designed Cindy Sherman’s book.

“We finally met in person a year and a half later and spent a day in my studio looking at everything for future projects. We have many books and projects in the works right now.

CONTACT (NJG, 2021) is the complete session of forty portraits of Cindy Sherman, including four contact sheets and the photographer’s original annotations in Sherman’s studio. What characterizes these portraits is a kind of transparency, a kind of truth. Photographed without the fanfare of matching accessories, makeup, or wigs, Sherman is her own subject.

The book is called Contact because there are contact sheets shown in the book.

“I think it could also refer to the kind of contact one has when taking a portrait,” explains the artist.

Hahnemühle FineArt Photo Rag is the paper that Barron now uses for all his digital prints.

“And I have three printers,” Barron explains. “Chad Kleitsh in Rhinecliff, New York, and Jochem Schoneveld in Rome, Italy (I work there a lot). And Pete Mauney in Tivoli, New York, does my silver prints and does all my drum scans.

On the way to digital

Barron very slowly adapted to digital. In fact, she resisted it for a long time and her film photographer friends told her not to. Eventually, she made the switch.

She still shoots on film, but digital represents 80% of her work today.

Barron, who lives in Connecticut and Rome, Italy for part of the year, currently uses Fujifilm’s GFX system, including the smaller Fujifilm X100V.

“I also love my Fujifilm GFX670 film camera,” she says. “I use it in 6×6 mode. And I still use my Hasselblad from time to time. I love the iPhone and use it for my table tops.

“I even made beautiful portraits with my iPhone. What’s great is that he’s always with me, so I never miss a shot. I took a lot of photos for my book, Roman Hours, with an iPhone.

Barron enjoys photographing artists and creatives.

“I would say Cindy tops the list,” she says of her most memorable subjects. “Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jasper Johns, Keith Haring, Bianca Jagger and Ryuichi Sakamoto all come to mind. I just photographed Eileen Myles in Marfa, Texas and loved the experience.

Barron’s all-time favorite image is his portrait of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Jean-Michel Basquiat

“I love how he seems to come out of the shadows – I think it kind of reflected what was going on in his life at the time,” the photographer says. “I also like the way he looks at me so directly. I installed Lowel Tota-Lights for this shot.

“One of the benefits of being a portrait photographer is having the opportunity to meet all these fascinating people. And some of them become friends.

Barron seems to have done it all over the past four decades, but she’s far from done.

“Right now, I’m on a real portrait jag and loving it,” she admits. “I always take photos of Tabletops with my iPhone, especially when I’m in Italy. And I’ll be back to my color mirrors (shot with my Fujifilm GFX) later this summer. I’m designing a few books and a magazine shoot now, so I have a pretty full plate.

About the Author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera courses in New York at the International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was director and teacher of Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days workshops. You can reach him here.

Picture credits: All photos by Jeannette Montgomery Barron and courtesy of NJG.

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