Photographer Ricardo Barros To Speak on “Figuring Space”

“UNTITLED”: This photograph is from Ricardo Barros’s exhibit “Figuring Space.” He will speak at 7:30 p.m. at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton on Monday April 3. The event is free and open to the public.

By Doug Wallack

In his most recent work, noted photographer Ricardo Barros tackles the inexpressible — the abstraction that is space itself. Barros will be giving a lecture on his portfolio “Figuring Space” on Monday, April 3 for the Princeton Photography Club at the D&R Greenway.

Barros knew he needed to make art part of his life since he was a teenager, when a visit to a Paul Strand exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts affected him so profoundly it left him physically shaking: “It became essentially a spiritual experience for me just to stand there,” he recalls of the black and white collection of portraits and landscapes. So after high school, Barros enrolled at Lake Forest College in Illinois to study art history — a course of study that he believed would more readily allow him access to the world of fine art than would photography school, which he saw as being more technically and commercially focused. But after a short, happy interval studying art history, growing concerns about his future employment prospects prompted him to transfer to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he earned a bachelor’s in engineering, before going on to complete a master’s in civil engineering from Penn State.

His present livelihood in photography seems a bit unlikely given that he spent the first 16 years of his career as a researcher with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, conducting analyses on construction materials used in infrastructure projects. But throughout his tenure as an engineer, Barros developed his craft as a photographer on the side. He found friends in the art world through painters who hired him to make slides of their art to submit to galleries. As he taught himself through trial and error and gradually built up his collection of equipment, his hobby became more and more serious. In 1984 he won a fellowship in photography from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. Finally, after 16 years with the DOT, Barros decided to pursue photography full time, and he has now devoted himself to art for over two decades.

In “Figuring Space,” Barros uses the human figure to explore space as a metaphor. He is drawn to the abstraction of space, to the way it expresses as nonexistence. Space is the void, and it only makes sense to us when we frame some portion of it. “Pragmatists think of space as separation,” he writes, “Sculptors think of it as form. For architects, space is synonymous with flow. Traders see it as commodity. Mourners perceive it as loss. Visionaries perceive it as destination. And partners dance on a knife’s edge in space.”

For this series, Barros constructed a box in his studio as a relatively neutral spatial setting in which to photograph the human figure. Just as space in our daily lives is given meaning and dimension through the human stuff of daily living, so is Barros’s space made intelligible by his models. The body brings to space some modicum of sense.

The images play with the tension between abstraction and context that space embodies — that tug between a sort of ideal Platonic form of space and space as we, embodied, experience it. Barros notes that the figures themselves began to alert him to another parallel tension in the work, that between nude and naked — the former sublime, referring to an art object, and not wholly of this world, the latter human and lacking. For Barros, this in turn prompted an exploration of the differences between the sensual, sexual, and erotic.

Barros didn’t anticipate all of this, but he welcomes the examination that came of it. He says that he cares less about the photography itself than about the ideas that are behind it and come from it. In describing this contingent and spontaneous process of discovery, he resorts to the statistical language of his earlier career in engineering: “This is almost like a random walk, where you take one random step and you see where you are and you take another random step …. You never know what you’re going to touch next.”

The photographer, who is based in Bucks County, has work in the permanent collections of 11 museums including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University, and the Museu de Arte de São Paulo in his native Brazil. A selection of Barros’s work and his contact information can be found on his website, where he also accepts professional photography assignments: www.ricardobarros.com.

Ricardo Barros will speak on “Figuring Space” at 7:30 p.m. at the D&R Greenway Land Trust, 1 Preservation Place, Princeton. The event is free and open to the public.