July 4, 2023
UNDER THE COVERS WITH AMERICAN BEDROOM
REFLECTIONS ON THE NATURE OF LIFE
Photography by Barbara Peacock
Interview by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico
Barbara Peacock is an assignment photographer living in Portland, Maine. She studied fine arts at Boston University School of Fine Arts, and photography and filmmaking at The School for the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University. She began as a street photographer and gradually became an assignment lifestyle photographer.
Barbara began finding the threads of her hometown tapestry with a project that began in 1982 culminating with a published book in 2015, ‘Hometown’. A thirty-year photographic project that explores the community of the small town where she grew up and continued to live as an adult, Westford Massachusetts. Her photography examines life as she lived it, through the valued personal experiences with people she interacted and worked with, socially engaging on a day-to-day basis. We often walk through our daily lives, without paying close attention to the people we encounter, and the valuable contributions they make to our existence, even in their simplicity. While documenting community events and daily life Barbara exposes the simple realities that help shape the way we engage the world. She asks us to not just look but to see the important contributions inspired by the community. She asks us to open our eyes, as well as our hearts, respect old traditions, while we discover and make new ones, admire our neighbors, and lead with a handshake. Barbara gives back to her community through her visual storytelling, becoming an important thread in the fabric of her community.
We have the privilege of sharing Barbara’s current project, which was started in 2016, inspiring the book: American Bedroom - Reflections on the Nature of Life. This exploration is an anthropological examination of American culture spanning across the continental United States of America. Barbara invites us into one of the most sacred and private spaces where humanity exists. Where the door is often closed, securing the contents and protecting the intimacy we nourish as individuals, and share as partners, or families. It is where we dream, celebrate our personal triumphs, nourishing our bodies and minds. It is the space and place we retreat to in times of despair, where we heal from sickness, repair emotionally, replenish when depleted, finding absolute comfort in. ‘American Bedroom’ stories open the door respectfully, giving the subjects the opportunity to authentically communicate this intimacy honestly and openly, unreservedly.
‘American Bedroom’ breaks through the many barriers we create in our society. Barbara opens the door of a bedroom, illuminating the intimate thoughts, revealed through the bodies and souls of her subjects. The naked truth is open for interpretation, and inspiration. The confidence and trust shared between the photographer and subject are unique, allowing the photograph to exist, without feeling like it has been created. Its powerful message lies in the authenticity of the moments shared between the photographer and subjects; this is the magic that Barbara shares with us.
We are grateful to have the opportunity to ask Barbara about the connections she has made and the contributions she offers to help define humanity through her photography in the landscape of the American Bedroom.
“When physical bedroom doors are opened to me there is a veil of religion, politics, and ideologies that is mysteriously and magically lifted. What remains, is the bare soul of human life, a story, and purity of heart that rises like cream to the top. This is not a look at our differences, although there may be many, it is about our likenesses, our loves, our dreams, and all the threads of commonality that connect us as human beings.”
IN CONVERSATION WITH BARBARA PEACOCK
THE PICTORIAL LIST: Hello Barbara, thank you for your time, and for your candor answering our questions. We find your work to be a powerful statement about American culture in the 21st century. Please tell our readers a little about Barbara Peacock, where you are from, and your connection to your community.
BARBARA PEACOCK: I live in a small town in Maine outside of Portland. I moved here six years ago before that I lived in Massachusetts for all of my life. I had a portrait studio in a very small town, so I knew everyone, and it was a nice community where I photographed the people for over 30 years while I was raising my children and working as a professional photographer. My first body of work was called ‘Hometown’ which was a documentary about the town I grew up. My community up here in Maine has much closer ties to my immediate family and a few local families that I’ve met and become close to.
TPL: When did you first pick up a camera, when was it obvious you were not going to put it down? Who was your biggest influence in the way you see through your lens?
BP: I first picked up a brownie camera when I was four or five years old and took pictures of the family pets and my siblings. My dad had a 35mm camera which he would not allow me to use until I turned 16, but there are pictures of me running with that camera and bringing it to him. I think he was in the garden and wanted to photograph something and had me go get it, so I love that picture because it shows a determined young girl. I kept asking my father if I could get a 35mm camera, when I was a little bit older, he said that if I earned half the money, he would pay the other half. When I was about 14, I got a job in a bakery for the Summer and saved all my money and at the end of the Summer, my dad and I drove into Boston and I picked out my first camera, which was a Canon camera with a 50mm lens.
When I was in high school, we had a dark room and a really enthusiastic art teacher that I really connected with, he was a great influence. He taught us how to process black-and-white film, and how to print it, and I ended up as the high school photographer for the yearbook. After that, I went to art school and it was mostly drawing, painting, and sculpture for two years as photography was not part of that curriculum. Since I missed photography quite a bit, I transferred to the Museum School in Boston where I could do photography and filmmaking. I had already been influenced by the photographs in ‘The Family of Man’ by Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans but now at the new school, I was introduced to Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Frank, Eugene Smith, Helen Levitt, Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Gary Winograd etc., and I was taken by street photography. Although I worked as a commercial photographer for many years, I continued to pursue shooting ‘Hometown’ in the pure style and adherence of the school of street photography. Eventually, I was able to study with Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, and Ernesto Bazan.
TPL: What was your first connection to the community, even as a little girl? What was the spark that ignited this fire that has become an inspirational element that has become the backbone and structure of your work?
BP: The spark was what I mentioned above about my dad having this camera, and the fact that we had these brownie cameras around the house with black and white film, and every once in a while, little photographs with scalloped edges, would appear on the kitchen table and my brothers and I would gather around completely fascinated. So, for me, it all started back then. It seemed magical and I was completely connected to it. But also, I think the fact that I was so connected to our small town was because I walked everywhere as a kid (Back then we used to walk everywhere, my mom never gave us a ride even in snowstorms!). As I said in Hometown “The very essence of the town penetrated my soul through the soles of my feet.” So, when it was time to build a body of work, I decided to turn my camera to what I knew which was my ‘Hometown.’
TPL: Tell us more about the diversity in what you photograph. What are the Pros and Cons of flexibility required to successfully achieve this. What is the constant or connecting thread you have found throughout all the frames you have constructed?
BP: It’s always about people and being open to their stories and lives. In the case of ‘Hometown’ I was more of a fly on the wall, trying to capture life as it unfolded in front of me. In that case it was more of a casual head nod or a conversation after the fact. For ‘American Bedroom’, once someone was willing to allow me to come into their bedroom it more or less became what I call ‘a song and a dance.’ By that I mean the song is keeping a conversation going while I assess the light and address the technical, (you have to make it look easy and seamless). The ‘dance’ part is to keep that going while I shoot so they become less nervous or self-aware.
The pros are that I have had the opportunity to meet so many people who open up about their lives so they can tell their story for the world to see. There really aren’t many cons since all of this is an incredibly privileged and humbling experience and opportunity. Once in a while, I travel a long way to photograph someone who ghosts me, but that kind of thing happens. You have to stay focused on the project as a whole and not allow yourself to get dragged down by the bumps in the road. The constant thread with all the images I have taken is the storytelling of human lives.
TPL: Your photography that we have shared focuses on the fabric of American society. You find common threads that create unique patterns weaving an authentic tapestry of American culture. Barbara, please introduce your project ‘American Bedroom’ to us. What inspired the concept for ‘American Bedroom’?
BP: The genesis of ‘American Bedroom’ began one spring morning when I was looking out my bedroom window to view my garden. When I turned, I saw my husband wrapped up in bed linens, bathed in low amber light, looking like a Renaissance painting. The caveat was his snore mask which created a dichotomy of the classical and the contemporary. I chuckled a little, as I sat back in bed with my coffee ‘Rebirth of naturalism’ from art history was spinning around my head. I began to complete the scene in my head as to where and how I would be if this was a photograph. Then my mind began to consider the contents of our bed stands with books, water, sleep aids, notebooks for midnight thoughts, and the coffee ring stains. I thought, in a non-secular way, God is in the details. My eyes drifted to my dresser with family photos of the kids and pets, ceramic birds that were my mother's, and a jewelry box where I knew there were treasured love notes from my children tucked away for bittersweet walks down memory lane.
TPL: Talk us through the narrative of ‘American Bedroom’ - what journey are you taking us on? What is the full story behind the project?
BP: The story behind ‘American Bedroom’ is the people.
I am taking you on the journey one bedroom at a time, while the people are completing the journey with their stories. This is a glimpse of America and Americans at this time in our history.
TPL: After the concept, what was the process you went through to make this a real project? What are some successes, and what are some learning curves, or advice you can share that was a valuable lesson you learned?
BP: After I formed the initial concept, I asked friends and family what they thought of the idea. Everyone was enthusiastic about it. I began to ask people if they would be my subject and to my amazement some said yes.
My first photograph for ‘American Bedroom’ was of a young girl named Jessica. I met her at an outdoor flea market. She gave me her name on a little piece of paper. About a month went by and I finally made a date to photograph her. I knew several things before I started. I knew it would be a wide lens so I could get all of life’s little details in the frame, (the whole project was shot with a 24mm lens). I also knew I would be using a tripod since I would often be in low-light situations. It is also important to mention that ‘American Bedroom’ is not a true documentary, but more of a melding of photography and painting - and that I would allow myself to move things and potentially help the subject’s pose.
Jessica was beginner's luck in a lot of ways. I created my first image exactly how I imagined it. I began sharing the images on social media - Facebook and Instagram. People responded positively and enthusiastically. I continued shooting locally and then made my first journey to The South. Once I had about 15 strong images I applied for grants. In 2017 I won the Getty Editorial Grant, and the project was off and running.
There is much I have learned. Too much to put down here but I think the most profound thing I learned was that I became a conduit for the voice of the people and that the project was much bigger than me. Also, it was key to use social media to get the work out into the world. The project gained international attention and has been written about in approximately 30-40 feature articles. I have been interviewed for 3 podcasts, have had two museum shows, and sold prints to collectors. In the end, this did not equate to book sales. There was some kind of disconnect. My advice is to try hard to get gallery representation. Both here and in Europe. And, to broaden the reach beyond photographers.
TPL: How did you find your willing subjects? Was there a selection process you went through? Talk to us about your method and experimentation before the final images in your project. Did you know how you wanted the project to look? How long did each image take to create?
BP: Initially, I photographed family and friends and local willing subjects. To broaden my search, I would post on Facebook / Instagram where I was traveling to and ask folks if they had any connections there. Once on location I would go to small towns and find local diners, hair salons, and hardware stores, where everyone knew everyone. Often, I would leave small cards that had a little about the project and my contact info. I would meet people along the way, and they knew people. So, there were a myriad of ways to meet willing subjects. Most sessions last about an hour. I try to always shoot from two different angles. I don’t experiment more than that. As I said previously, I use one lens - a 24mm. There is so much going on within the 4 walls and the subject(s) that my concentration is mainly on how to create the strongest composition, harness the best light and tell this human story uniquely. I often made a habit of having coffee or taking them out to eat or just talking for a long while. Another thing I learned is that there are a lot of lonely people who would like someone to sit with, to stay a little longer.
Once I am processing the images, I look at each image for expression, gesture, and focus. I choose my selections by giving them a 2-star. When I go back for round two, (usually a few days later), I then give my favorites a 3 star. I review those and pick anywhere from one to three images, and these give a 4 star. Once I have the subject's personal statement, I share an image on social media. Sometimes there is clearly one winning image that stands out and that is always wonderful.
TPL: What is your take away from your visual story exploration? What have you learned about the American Bedroom? What do you wish readers to learn through your photography?
BP: Yesterday I was telling a woman I had just met, a few of the background stories of two of the people I have photographed. She got goosebumps and teared up. She held herself tight for a few moments and this was without seeing the photographs. I think such raw and authentic human emotion is one of the most beautiful things on this earth. It is pure and real and can never be denied. These stories are humanistic tales of living in this country, at this time. I hope to not only give these people a voice but to give them, (and those like them), the power to be seen and to speak deeply to the viewer to gain empathy, emotion, and a silent respectful communion. For those suffering, growing, lost, addicted, alone, loving, learning, grieving, yearning, dreaming, and even content, there is a fellow kinship and identity that holds power. The power found in human connection.
TPL: Share with our community why projects are important, what have they brought to your work? Was the first step the hardest? What was the first step? Is there a last step?
BP: Projects are important for the soul of the creator and for the audience. If you are an artist, of any type, you simply need to create. It is hardly a choice. It is how we live our lives. It is what allows us to breathe. That might sound dramatic, but it is quite true. The observer is allowed to use their curiosity and imagination to view work and form their opinions. It can open worlds for people who may not have had an opportunity to experience something firsthand or would not have the proclivity to do so, to begin with.
The first step is simply doing something. Take a chance. Formulate the idea and then begin. I’m not sure if the hardest step is the first, but rather when you are in the middle of a big project it can become difficult to go on. There are conclusions to projects. Creating a book for a body of work is more or less a final step. There may be gallery and museum shows and book signings, but the creating of imagery for the project - that part is over.
TPL: What projects do you have planned for the future? Will American culture be the inspiration?
BP: Yes. There will be one more American story to complete a trilogy of American projects. I don’t have the total concept down, but it will be centered on women.
TPL: When you are not out making these connections through your photography, what is Barbara doing? Do you escape to your bedroom? What does Barbara’s bedroom say about Barbara? What might we be surprised to find?
BP: My home and my family are my lifeline. I am married and we have three wonderful grown sons. We are fortunate to live in close proximity to them. Our lives overlap all the time, and it is truly a blessing. I’ve done nothing more important in my life than to give life. I have some lovely flower gardens and my office looks over a deck with flowers, birds, and hummingbirds that come and go all day. In the winter my world is full of beautiful snowfalls. I love to read, draw and paint and I am always at peace when I find the time to do so. I also have written a few screenplays and hope to direct a film next year. I listen to a huge variety of music; it is incredibly important to me. I have playlists for all different times of the day with everything from classical, jazz to rock.
You will always find my bed made with pretty pillows. My bedroom is light, airy, and pretty. I don't spend much time there, but I like it to be comfortable and pleasant and welcoming for an occasional afternoon nap with a book and my cat, and for nighttime sleeping.
We cannot say enough about Barbara and her thoughtful and brilliant work. We would like to give her a shout out for her diligence and generous contribution founding a not-profit organization in 2010, ‘The Nightingale Project’. This project has inspired and supported the artistic nurturing of needy individuals through art and photography providing the opportunity and new vision, to some who thirsted for her influence. It is a traveling program with a variety of ages that are supported, with a mix of people from adults and high school. The journeys so far have included Haiti, Cambodia, and New York. We look forward to watching her program grow, and watching the influence she has on the eyes of the future.
Barbara Peacock has worked with clients all over the world in many different ways. Commercial clients include Arm & Hammer, Coca-Cola, Disney, Toyota, Volkswagen & Nickelodeon and more. Editorial clients include People, Newsweek, Real Simple, Family Circle, Oprah, Family Fun. Barbara is a highly awarded photographer and has exhibited internationally, giving Barabara the ability to continue her studies and produce her important work. Follow her links to her website and social media for more information and continued inspiration.
You can preorder a personal copy of ‘American Bedroom’ from Barbara’s website and help support the continuation of her important work exploring and helping to define American culture in our contemporary society.