The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The man, the myth, the lens
I had the recent opportunity to sit down with colleague and Smithsonian photographer, Michael Barnes of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Photographic Services and really get to know the man behind the camera. Michael Barnes has been employed at the Smithsonian for an impressive thirty-five years. A photographer for eight of those years, Michael is one of a select group of professionals scheduled to document the Smithsonian, whether pertaining to objects in collections, senior staff portraits, or Smithsonian-related events. Brimming with highlighted experiences from when he first began taking pictures for the Smithsonian, we dove into discussion touching on an array of past assignments. Michael explained the charm of being a Smithsonian photographer is all about “the people you meet and the objects you see.” As Michael states, “One minute you’re playing in dirt, the next minute you’re photographing a great professor!” Though he enjoys it all, he expressed a certain preference for photographing objects. “It’s a chance to be creative. Determining the right lighting, different angles, detail shots . . . Plus, they don’t talk back; they just sit there.” Michael chuckled. To help illustrate his enthusiasm for recent projects, Michael took me on a tour through his digital image files. There, he singled out a dress. From this image, he recalled a memorable object photo shoot for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Prepared for sophistication, Michael photographed five antique gowns in two days from a makeshift studio. He remarked this was his favorite dress because, "Each flower [on the dress] was handmade. Each petal was handmade." Focused on such thoughtful detail and care, a photographer is bound to form an attachment, even if the shoot is a mere couple of days.
Michael did express a choice for object photography, though he seems to have an equally good time chronicling events. While surfing through the images, he paused to describe being called to duty as a staff photographer for Smithsonian-sponsored events, such as Save Our African American Treasures: A National Collections Initiative, a program presented by NMAAHC. In between capturing the compelling and casual, Michael had opportunities to mingle amongst the people sharing heirlooms and passion for their heritage.
He also presented a striking image from the 42nd Anniversary “Jubilee” Luncheon of the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. Seated on the left (in the fantastic purple hat) is the late Dorothy Height, chairman and president emerita, National Council of Negro Women, and on the right is Johnnetta Cole, director of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. From Michael’s unique perspective, referring to Cole’s engagement with Height, “It’s like she’s gleaning nuggets from this woman, there’s so much history in her . . . ‘Tell me more, tell me more!’”
To top it off, being a Photographic Services photographer awards the perk to pursue work independently, inspiring more visceral calls to photograph national events, such as the momentous Million Man March and historical presidential inaugurations.
Whether in the studio or in the field, Michael has an energy for photography that just won’t quit! It was clear, with his natural interest in history and artifacts, taking pictures for the Smithsonian is the prime place to be. What’s better than appreciating the adventure of your assignments? Being appreciated for your work, of course. Michael said it best, “Let me put it to you this way, I’m always invited back.” With that, there’s no doubt. Our lens caps are off to you, Michael Barnes. This is part of a series of posts giving a behind-the-scenes look at the work of the Smithsonian Institution Archives. Also see posts describing the work of a Photo Archivist, a Registrar, a Librarian, and an Archivist.