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Running Long on the Short List

A feeling for the city not as a backdrop but as a home: Helen Levitt's New York (1972) in "New York: Capital of Photography"
photo: Courtesy The Jewish Museum, New York
A feeling for the city not as a backdrop but as a home: Helen Levitt's New York (1972) in "New York: Capital of Photography"

Tina Barney's new photographs of English aristos (at Janet Borden, 560 Broadway, through June 15) include one of children that's especially striking in light of the "Priceless Children" show. Like so many contemporary photographers, Barney whips up a distinctive blend of realism and artifice. Because her subjects are almost invariably wealthy and socially established (often, at the beginning of her career, close friends and relatives), her pictures share Pictorialism's rarefied air of complacent well-being. But Barney's faux-candid portrait style is much closer to Hine's documentary immediacy than Käsebier's or White's dream world. Barney's The Lollipops, a big, color picture of four handsome children loosely grouped in a dining room between open glass doors, straddles these two extremes. The setting, with its offhand suggestion of spacious comfort, would have been appropriate for a Pictorialist portrait, but the almost impudent combination of familiarity, impatience, and challenge in the children's expressions and their snapshot-casual pose echoes many of Hine's wonderful informal groupings. In other photos here, Barney's ease with her subjects turns what might have been broadly satiric social comment into something subtler and more revealing. Since most of them are seen in domestic interiors bristling with clues about their taste and status, we're likely to jump to classist conclusions about her world-weary women, formidable men, and their supremely confident offspring. But because Barney never draws these sorts of conclusions, her portraits have a generosity and grace that gives even the slightest of them substance.

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