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Behind The Scenes: Tim Barber

How did you get interested in photography?

I've been into it since I was pretty young. There were a lot of photo books in my house growing up and I was always obsessing over them. I started taking photo classes in 9th grade and have been basically studying it ever since.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever photographed?

That's really hard to say because there are so many degrees of weirdness. I photographed Woodstock '99, where all the riots and violence happened...that was pretty weird in a kind of ugly way. I photographed a Luna Moth with a macro lens once, right up in its weird furry face. I have a photo I took at my friend's farm of a goat riding on the back of horse! I worked for Vice Magazine for a while, and shot some pretty bizarre things for them over the years, like a guy partying wearing only an chicken carcass. Stuff like that.

What's the weirdest thing you've ever seen?

I've seen UFOs a few times, and a ghost once, but those are like normal weird things. I watched the Twin Towers get hit by airplanes and then collapse from a few blocks away. That was pretty weird.

Ok, the UFOs—discuss.

The first one I saw was over a field in the middle of Amherst, Mass. the town where I grew up. I was probably around 11-years-old. They had outdoor movie nights in the summer, and I was laying on my back not watching the movie and a bright white, wide blur of light flew right over us. No one else saw it though, so maybe I was having kid hallucinations.

The second UFO I saw was actually just the smoke trail from a UFO. It was the summer of 2005 and I was in the dessert outside of 29 Palms in California (where we shot part of this UO catalog!). I was traveling with Ryan McGinley and a bunch of friends on a road trip, and the sun had just set behind us as we were driving down the road. I was driving, and in my rearview mirror I saw this huge bright smoke spiral high in the atmosphere. The sun had set, but this spiral was so high up that the sunlight was still hitting it, and it was all the brilliant colors of a California sunset in a past-dusk darkening sky. We pulled over and everyone sat on the roof of the van and we watched as the smoke spiral dispersed and the light faded on it. We were pretty much convinced that it was an alien thing, and that any minute the earth was going to be destroyed or something. It was insane and scary and exciting. When we got back to where we staying we watched the news on this tiny portable TV we had. There were reports of sightings of the spiral from all over Southern California, but no one knew what it was.

What was the ghost you saw?

The ghost I saw was in an old Victorian house in Vancouver, in an area called Strathcona. I had been visiting my friends that lived there, and decided to crash on the couch for the night. There were French glass doors separating the room I was in from the front room. I woke up with a start in the middle of the night and saw the figure of a man standing behind the glass doors, just kind of swaying and staring at me. I was really scared, too scared to even move, so I just sat there, not knowing what to do. Eventually I started to realize that this figure was not scary somehow, that he was just sad. I think in my weird half asleep brain I just kind of came to terms with the fact that he was not a threat, that he was kinda half there, and I eventually fell back asleep. In the morning I told my friends about what I saw and they got really freaked out. They had a small child, who was maybe four, who had seen this man in the house multiple times. They had been so freaked out by this that they had asked the landlord about the history of the place, and he told them the previous tenant had shot himself in the head with a shotgun in the room that I saw the ghost in. There had even been a blood stain on the ceiling when they had moved in!

So the ghost was scarier?!?

For sure!

What's the weirdest thing you've ever done?

I drove across the country once by myself. It wasn't that weird, but what happens in your mind when you sleep sitting up and only talk to gas station attendants for four days is pretty weird.

What makes one photo good and another photo bad?

There's no real answer to that question, there are too many variables. A good photo can go bad if the context changes, and vice-versa. I think generally speaking, my favorite photos are ones that intrigue me, that make me wonder and ponder and conjure.

How does your commercial work differ from the work that you do for yourself?

The commercial work has a very specific subject and audience in mind. My personal work I make for myself, and what I'm looking for and looking at is always changing.

What advice would you give to photographers who are just starting out?

Shoot a ton, look at every photo book you can get your hands on, don't be easily satisfied, and take full advantage of the things that you have unique access to, whatever they may be.

Who is the most interesting person you've ever photographed?

Oh, I don't know... everyone is interesting for different reasons. I recently photographed the artist Robert Irwin, who's 83, and he was really interesting to talk to and to meet. I didn't know too much about him before the shoot, so I watched some lectures he had given on his work and process and I was really blown away by his perspective on things.

What was the most fun thing about the recent Urban Outfitters catalog shoot you did in Los Angeles.

We rented a beautiful red 1965 Plymouth Valiant convertible to use for the shoot, and I got to drive it all over L.A., and then out to the desert. It was like driving a boat, very soft and floaty.

What's an average day like on a UO shoot?

Wake up early to try and catch the morning magic hour. Run around to different locations, always shooting all the time, on the way to and from different places. We always have a very specific plan, but we also like to be spontaneous, so it's always a balance. I always forget to eat until late in the afternoon and there's always a mad dash at the end of the day to make it to somewhere specific for the sunset. Lots of coffees and coconut waters and good music!

How do you develop a concept of what the catalog will look like?

It always starts with ideas from Joanna [the UO art director], and then we just brainstorm and look at reference images and come up with ridiculous ideas. So much of it depends on the casting and locations, so a lot of thought goes into that stuff.

Where's your next trip?

I'm going back to L.A. actually, to shoot a fashion story for the magazine Muse.

What do you usually order from room service?

Cheeseburger, salad, Stella.

What makes you want to photograph a particular person?

It's hard to describe, but more that anything it's a certain kind of energy. Sometimes you have to work with the person for a while before you find it, but if they got it, they got it!

What kind of spaces/environments are you interested in?

I like them all! That's the fun part of being a photographer, the challenges of new and different surroundings. And often times the best stuff happens in the worst situations, like crazy weather or bad light. You are forced to get creative!

You run an arts platform called Tiny Vices. What do you consider to be examples of some tiny vices?

The name "Tiny Vices" came from the song "Hangman Blues" by Bill Callahan. Here are the lyrics :

Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha

Life's a joke
A waiting game now.
A juggling of vices
Tiny tiny vices
And they don't anchor me
To the ground
I know who the hangman is
So life's a joke

Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha

The clocks on the wall
Creeps higher.
Save save
Restraint restraint.
It's a joke
And I know who the hangman is

A ship in a vial
A headstone on the wharf
And it will pin me
To the ground

Ha ha ha
Ha ha ha

All the lights look green
So unbend
Your toughest smile
I think we've got
I think we've got
I think we've got

One more mile.