97 Barry Roth


Born Detroit, 1951 / BFA, Rochester Institute of Technology, New York; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in in Huntington Woods, Michigan

For me the formation of the thought is already sculpture. (Joseph Beuys, 1969)

In 1978, a small portfolio of nine Barry Roth photos was published in the periodical Lightworks, #10. These tabletop images (including Day Sleep, 1975) were staged from Roth’s Palmer Park Detroit studio/apartment in the mid-1970s. Their intimate scale and dark theatricality worked discreetly with post-modern tropes such as self-identity, deconstructed narratives, pop-culture and historical references—and made them more disorienting and idiosyncratic. They presented interior landscapes that were new and radical.   

Roth’s artistry was an unacknowledged rupture in traditional photography that challenged norms of tableaux representation. While studying for an MFA, Roth discovered his unique analytic style. “I liked street photography,” said Roth, “but wanted something I could do anytime. “I was attracted to photographers like Les Krims – who staged things, setting things up for the camera.” Roth centers his photography as the thing itself; photographing to see how something looked as a photograph, aligning his ideas with street photographer  Gary Winogrand, who explained, “The photo is a thing in itself. And that’s what still photography is all about.”  Photography as a “truth-telling” medium was rejected by Roth, who describes his process as image-making rather than image-taking.

Day Sleep is a glossary of Roth’s effective low-budget methods. By erasing traditional boundaries and frames in photography, Roth created a private theater where meaning and illusion were  tightly controlled under his direction. Day Sleep’s subject is a photographer’s dream; a table-top arrangement of fragmented reality. It is both dream object and manifesto of Roth’s practice. Day Sleep is a breakthrough image—a photograph caught in the process of describing itself, reframing its relationship with time, motion and reality.

In Switch Blade (1981), To Ward Off the Chilling Spray (1982), and Nightcrawlerz Portrait (1982), Roth stretches the still-life further; adding drawings, layers, scratching, mixing multiple negatives, emphasizing specific words and focusing on the memorial nature of the film process. Roth’s photography possesses an unmistakable energy. Like a cubist painter, he rips into the medium’s foundation; cutting into negatives, collaging on the enlarger, presenting multiple meanings and visions.

Nightcrawlerz is a portrait of several interrelated negatives presented as one uniform image. Composed from cutup negatives, Nightcrawlerz highlights the serial nature of photography and its effectiveness in portraiture. The image also physically embodies the chopped soundscapes and collage aesthetics of the noise/art collective it depicts.

To Ward Off the Chilling Spray  is a haunted photo-collage of negatives sheathed in darkness. Roth conjures up a Frankenstein theater, weaving scraps of life into new realities; puppets, broken clocks, toys, and other daily objects are gathered up in a blended language of image and word—a Möbius strip of recurring memory. Darkness is a constant frame for Roth’s staged symbols; allowing space for the eye to roam, to connect and zoom into the details of these damaged and cryptic panoramas.

Copy machines, Polaroids, scanners and cellphones increased Roth’s speed of working, freeing him from the darkroom while expanding his low-fi techniques. Cutting into a Polaroid was a quick way to alter photography—one step removed from digital techniques. “Working with Polaroids was a big jump—all at once it began clicking for me,” says Roth. Untitled Polaroids display drawings cut into the surface, symbols Roth would recycle for decades.

“When I moved to my house in 1987,” said Roth, “I started going deeper into sculpture, photographing the things I was making.” Roth discovered that his scanner was like having a view camera and began combining sculptures and photos together, thus opening a new technique. “In the end,” he says, “it all boils down to one thing: you’re making a composition—and I’m trusting my instincts in putting them together.”

Untitled Sculptographs are recent drawings, sculpture and street photos, hand-cropped and then processed with a cell phone application. The “Sculptograph” series show off Roth’s insouciant style, created on-the-fly and often shared to his Instagram feed. Sculpture Shelf (2018) depicts some of Roth’s sculptures—small raw masterworks seen before their attachment into scans or photos.  

Roth riffs on common images; a human figure, car, house, train, trees and dogs—all basic “root symbols” he finds rhythmic and alive. According to Roth, these recurring motifs help connect daily life to the sacred and eternal. “The symbols I work with are universal but made in a very personal way,” stated Roth, “Sometimes the image can refer to the Kabballah, a system that’s like a blueprint or pathway in life, speaking to feelings, desires and emotional states within each person.” Roth’s devotion to self-reflection and experiment has produced a prolific stream of poetic imagery, hand-made books and sculptures—all radiating a singular unorthodox beauty, mystery and wonder.

Cary Loren, March 2018

Copyright Essay’d 2018