The Photographer Creating Portraits of People Through Their T-Shirts

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Rihanna’s FingerPhotograph by Susan A. Barnett. Published in T: A Typology of T-Shirts. Copyright © 2014. All Rights Reserved.

New York image-maker Susan Barnett explores the T-shirt’s power to tell personal and political stories about who we are, and who we want to be

In 1973, The New York Times dubbed the T-shirt “the medium for the message”. This, after all, was the decade that brought the world slogan T-shirts from Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, band T-shirts featuring Pink Floyd and Joy Division’s iconic album artwork, and the I Love NY T-shirt. By that time, the T-shirt had come a long way since the days of Marlon Brando and James Dean, from humble undergarment to canvas for self-expression. It has subsequently risen through the ranks of popular dress as something cool, controversial, sexy, political and ironic in equal measure.

According to the current exhibition at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion, this simple garment has had more cultural impact than any other article of clothing in the last 100 years. Of particular note, the show includes the work of American photographer Susan Barnett, who has been documenting graphic and slogan T-shirts on the streets of New York and around the world since 2009.

Barnett’s ongoing exploration of the T-shirt doubles as a typology and an unconventional series of portraits. The former gallerist’s archive of over 2,000 images (more than 65 are on display) speaks volumes about her subjects despite showing none of their faces. Details about their identities, politics and tastes are communicated through nothing but the T-shirts on their backs. “I think we use our bodies in a performative way,” Barnett says. “When you walk down the street in the city, T-shirts can be another kind of billboard.” Here, she reflects on portraiture, perception and where she sees the project going.

On how the project began…
“One day, I was out with my camera down in DUMBO in Brooklyn, and there was a woman standing on the corner waiting for the light, as I was. She was wearing a T-shirt with a beautiful silk-screened African mask on the back and I was right behind her. I took her picture without asking while we were waiting for the light. When I looked at the picture later, I realised that, in fact, it was a portrait. Because even though we didn’t see her face, we learned a lot about her. We learned what she wanted to put out into the world and the T-shirt said it all.”

On shooting from the back…
“The formal aspects of my photographs are very particular and some of them are typical of portraits. I always try to keep the head clear with a blue sky behind it. I admit that I’m not the first person to take pictures from the back – there’s a wonderful history of it – but my interest is very specific. Without seeing the face, you ask different questions, you make different assumptions. It’s really a question of what defines the contemporary portrait.”

On what T-shirts can tell us…
“The project is about identity and perception because people are telling us what their passions are, their hopes, their dreams, their political leanings, the bands they like. These are all things that are part of their personality and part of their character. First, they’re telling us who they are. Then they’re telling us who they aren’t.”

On choosing her subjects…
“Believe it or not, it is very hard to find messages on the back of T-shirts. I walk around in cities all over the world and I can go for three or four hours without seeing the kind of T-shirt I’m looking for. In the process of photographing, I take pictures of anybody and everybody who has a T-shirt with something on the back. They’re all posed so I have to ask them first. Nine out of ten say yes. They’re thrilled that I noticed them. They want to be noticed.”

On how her interest has evolved…
“At first, I didn’t realise how much of a historical object the T-shirt is. My interest has changed because the project now shows the passage of time. When you see a T-shirt from five years ago protesting the Iraq war, it shows you where you were and where you are now. They have the capacity to tell stories and that’s what interests me. I’m continuing this work and hoping that I can do a decade of T-shirts.”

T-Shirt: Cult, Culture, Subversion is at the Fashion and Textile Museum until May 6, 2018.