Though he couldn't care less about labels, Tim Barber is deeply interested in clothes — particularly how people wear them. His unique ability to capture style in photographs has led to an ever-growing list of fashion clients, such as Opening Ceremony and Stella McCartney. And while this roster is only getting bigger, he still makes time for his other work as a curator and fine artist. “Open Sesame,” his show featuring the work of Ryan McGinley, Andrew Kuo, Aurel Schmidt, and others, just opened at the A.S.S. Gallery, and he has curated no less than six upcoming shows at Primary Photographic Gallery. As if that weren't enough, he continues to debut new artists on his pioneering photography site, tinyvices.com. This fall, with an introduction courtesy of Miranda July, OHWOW Gallery will release Barber's first comprehensive monograph, Untitled Photographs. We caught up with the soft-spoken Massachusetts native to discuss fashion clichés, his latest Urban Outfitters catalog, and his recent 40-page fashion story in Muse.
The models in your Urban Outfitters catalogs seem like they're having fun. Are they actually having fun?
Yes they are! I hope so anyway. It's all about doing fun things in fun locations with fun people and keeping a cool and easy vibe on the set. Lots of music and joking around! I just did another catalog up in Vancouver, which is my old stomping grounds. We shot the whole thing up in the mountains — waterfalls, rivers — it was really epic.
How involved are you with casting?
I'm very involved. I think it's the most important detail, next to locations. The most basic thing I look for in a model is a certain kind of comfort and confidence. There is a lot of acting involved in being a good model, a lot of adaptation and interaction with the camera and crew, and with the surroundings.
Why is location so important for your shoots?
Locations create the setting and play a lead character in the story. There is a lot that can happen with the relationship between a figure and the landscape they are in.
Did you start off wanting to shoot fashion images?
No, I never really thought about shooting fashion specifically until recently. I've always just liked the challenge of making successful images, whatever that might mean. I'm definitely interested in capturing a mood and creating a narrative, but I'm not so interested in making things that feel overly contemporary. I'm drawn to things that feel classic and timeless. Not retro, but timeless. The first fashion images that I was aware of were by Richard Avedon. My parents had a book of his work that I obsessed over when I was a kid. That shot with the elephants definitely left a dent in my brain. Other than that, it was all rock and roll and skateboarding that stood out to me, style-wise. But it was never about the clothes. It was about how they were worn, how the people moved in them. Clothing is to style what lighting is to a photograph.
Are there any clichés in fashion photos that you would like to see go away?
I'm hesitant to say, because I think the interesting thing about clichés is that when they're done right, they're the best. Still, I think it's amazing that people will pitch something like, "Let's put her in a bikini and go shoot on the beach." I don't know how people are still doing that and taking themselves seriously. But then again, maybe there's a way to make an interesting story out of that. Who knows?
What about one cliché you kind of secretly love?
I'm a sucker for all things dreamy and ethereal.
In terms of your personal style, is there anything you would never, ever wear?
Flip-flops or a fancy watch. I'm not much of a shopper. I'm the kind of guy who gets one shirt and wears it all year. Or I'll find one shirt I like and buy a bunch of them and then never think about it again.
Do you consider yourself more of a fine art photographer or fashion photographer?
It seems like people are always trying to get you to do one or the other, but I always say I am doing both. I guess I am actively pursuing fashion lately because it started off on a good foot and I really enjoyed it. I just shot my first actual fashion editorial in the spring, for Muse. That was very cool, and it ended up being 40 pages in the magazine.
Forty pages? That's highly unusual, no?
Yeah, it was a perfect storm of events. I don't think they knew what to expect from me. We only shot for two days but we shot about 30 looks, in several different locations. We drove all over the place, tried a lot of things, and they all worked out. We were all surprised. We worked really hard.
In 2005, you started tinyvices.com, which has become a kind of go-to site for anyone interested in new photography. Did you know it would take off the way it did?
At the time, I was working as a photo editor at Vice , and I was seeing a lot of work that I really liked, but it had no relevance for the magazine. Even though it wasn't that long ago, it was pre-photo-blog and pre-Tumblr. I saw the Internet as a place where I could build a platform to show things I was interested in. Eventually, I posted a link for submissions, and it just grew into a big Internet snowball. Its popularity has totally surprised me. I get dozens of submissions every day from people all over the world. One of my main motivations for keeping it going for so long is that it keeps me inspired about photography. There's really not another place, site, or gallery that I know of that I can look at to get the same level of excitement that I get from the submissions I receive.
Out of all the things you've got going on this fall, what's the one you're most excited about?
I'm most excited for my book to finally be out. It's been so long in the making and it will be very satisfying to see finished. We are going to do a few book launches in New York and L.A., so keep an eye out for those!