Read below to find an interview with Gary Monroe, author of the new book E. G. Barnhill. This interview gives us a peek into Monroe’s fascination with unsung Florida artists.
You’ve written several books about relatively unknown Florida artists and photographers. What is it about these figures that draws you to them?
My interest is with self-taught artists; their raw energy and personal visions have much to offer and often challenge the status quo.
How does E. G. Barnhill compare to some of your previous subjects, like Mary Ann Carroll or Bruce Mozert?
I write about artists who generally don’t aspire to be recognized as artists, and have indeed not been recognized. So-called “outsider artists” don’t often consider themselves artists, and art might never have been their concern. Barnhill, like Mozert and Carroll, were in it for the money and, ironically, this freed them to create without regard to established art-making ways and thought.
As a photographer yourself, what did you know about hand-coloring before you researched Barnhill?
Color film was not commonplace until the 1950s, so photographers have long hand colored their prints to add to the illusion of reality. The practice is about as old as the medium. Colorists were employed during the daguerreotype and tintype eras for applying a touch of rouge to sitters’ cheeks to add life to the otherwise lifeless portraits. One had to hold still for many seconds because of the slow exposure times that were then required, which caused an eeriness to the images. Hand coloring became a regular practice, especially with the advent of mechanical printing. Barnhill took the practice a couple steps further; he went from traditional watercolor street-scene postcard views to using uranium dyes on large glass plates of Florida landscapes.
Why do you think some photographers decided to add color to their photographs when others simply let their prints speak for themselves?
I suspect practicality and commercial gain. Also, there’s always been a sort of battle about the sense of realty in photographs, how to make them most compelling. The popularity of three-dimensional imagery (from stereographs to View Masters) came and waned, as the credibility of a stripped-bare image’s structure was sufficient and perhaps most convincing; maybe too, the lack of color appealed to people’s imaginations in a way that engaged one more actively than looking at a prettier, colored rendition. The answer may be in your question: they speak for themselves. Color might have been a distraction, as it wasn’t part of the then current picture making strategy or visual vocabulary.
Why do you tend to focus on Florida artists, and on self-taught artists in particular?
I’m a native Floridian and all things Florida fascinate me. My interest in self-taught artists stems from my own photography, and likely my ’60s sensitivity to the marginalized, under-recognized, and eccentric. It’s also that works by these artists upset the proverbial apple cart—another ’60s sentiment. Further, I take pride in explicating their artwork.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
That many unknown artists’ works are relevant and vital, adding meaning to the corpus of contemporary aesthetics; without this awareness, that corpus is diminished. This art challenges and gives perspective to accepted thought and practices. Further, the art of Florida would be meaningfully diminished without recognizing E.G. Barnhill. Barnhill’s art is a spoke in the wheel, and his images are like no one else’s. Collectors of Highwaymen paintings have commented that Barnhill’s art resembles Highwaymen paintings. They do share similarities, but Barnhill’s art was created fifty years before the Highwaymen picked up brushes.
What are you working on next?
I’m photographing of course–the restricted landscape at the Kennedy Space Center, along the trail of eighteenth century explorer William Bartram, and the 21 alleged Fountains of Youth. I’m also writing the most engaging Highwaymen essay yet: Improving Paradise is centered around Alfred Hair’s short life and profound influence, and through it I’ve added to our understanding of the social setting of the time and place, the virtual art movement and real civil rights movement, and the aesthetic of Highwaymen art. The Highwaymen laid the foundation of our understanding and appreciation of the art and artists while Improving Paradise takes it to a deeper and higher level.
Why should anyone care about unsung artists like Barnhill?
It’s important to study the idiosyncrasies of established history, and in art especially, these idiosyncrasies are very often overlooked, taken for granted, or massaged to meet standard practices. The beauty of working with the edges and eccentricities of the arts, especially with the artists I’ve written about, is that their lives read like fictions yet their realities are factual. And these bare facts add up to meaningful narratives.