This article was printed in the Then & Now issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.
The photographer and educator invites us to the top floor of a disused building off Exeter’s high street, where he has transformed a former gym into a self-built camera, darkroom and studio
It is pitch black. We are standing inside Brendan Barry’s camera, and I can barely see my own hands. Unlike me, Barry is accustomed to moving around in the dark. He advances through it with ease, rolling and plunging giant sheets of paper through chemical-filled troughs. Blacked out with cardboard and gaffer tape, the camera-cum-darkroom occupies the entranceway of Barry’s studio on the third floor of a former gym, just off Exeter’s high street.
A large whiteboard stands in the centre of the room, facing a modest cardboard flap taped to the opposite wall. When lifted, it reveals a lens, which projects an image from the room on the other side. A faint smell of chemicals hangs in the air, along with the occasional buzz of traffic and calming electronic music that plays out of a set of speakers in the corner. “Sometimes I come here at night, to cut the paper to size,” says Barry. “I enjoy being in the dark. You hardly ever find yourself in it unless you’re going to sleep. It’s kind of nice.”
Barry flicks on the lights, tips one end of the rolled- up print into a plastic beaker, and walks it through the main studio room. We pass the subject of today’s image – a dried wildflower – and enter a room through a door labelled ‘Ladies shower room’. A blue hose dangles between one of the cubicles and a giant grey tray, around the size of a ping-pong table. Barry unrolls the 40×50” print, switches on the shower, and begins to rinse, unveiling his creation. “This is the moment I’m most excited about,” he beams. “Whenever I make something, there’s this crescendo. The moment this unrolls, that’s the best it’ll get.”
Barry is a photographer and educator who specialises in constructing objects and spaces to capture photographic images. He has been known to build cameras out of unlikely materials such as watermelon, cheese and Lego, and for transforming unexpected spaces – such as the top floor of a Manhattan skyscraper, or an abandoned control tower in Devon – into camera obscuras. He is also the founder of non-profit arts organisation Positive Light Projects, and the Dartmoor Summer School of Photography, a week-long residency in the wild moors of one of Devon’s National Parks.
Unlike artists who enrol in community engagement work to secure grants, or those who educate to make ends meet, for Barry, his personal practice and community projects are intertwined. “I’m not interested in creating barriers between them,” he says. “So much of what I do is about education, communication and collaboration.” Barry recently secured a three-year lease on a disused building near his current studio, and is crowdfunding to transform it into a multipurpose community arts space. It will be an embodiment of all the different elements of his practice, providing space for him to teach and make work while facilitating others to do the same.
Barry has not always had the luxury of such a large studio. He moved into his current space, which is owned by the performative arts organisation Maketank, in May 2020, during the first lockdown. Before that, he worked between his house and three shipping containers, which functioned either as a darkroom or storage units for various bits of equipment (including around 300 cameras).
In April, he won a small grant to produce a lockdown project, and used the funds to transform his garden shed into a camera. But after shooting his family, the neighbours and their dog, he soon found himself bereft of topics to photograph. It was then, on daily walks with his two-year-old daughter, Bea, that he began to notice wildflowers blooming around his neighbourhood.
“I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I put them in front of the camera… I watched it develop in the tray, and I thought, ‘This is the start of something’,” he says. “It was a real magical moment. I’m obviously not thankful for lockdown, but it has led me to this.”
Moving into the studio allowed Barry to focus on developing the series, now a growing collection of 30 prints titled Wildflowers picked on walks with Bea.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve been dedicated to a subject in this way,” he says. “I always really struggled with subject matter.” After graduating from an MA in photography at Plymouth University in 2012, where he studied under Jem Southam and David Chandler, Barry went straight into teaching. He pursued his personal practice alongside, but, “I always felt that I was playing the role of the photographer,” he says. “I’d look at the work I was making, and feel that it was really derivative of other people I was interested in.”
That feeling shifted around five years ago, when he began building cameras, and experimenting with more complex darkroom processes. Now, with the Wildflowers series, he senses that his work has moved into a new sphere.
“This feels more authentic; playing to my strengths,” he says. “So much of my process is in the mechanics. I’ll never get bored, and I’ll always have that instinct to try out new techniques. But now, I feel like I have a subject matter I can stick with.”
“The magic in the outcome is because of the excitement of the process it took to get there”
California poppies, red viburnum, cornflowers, hogweeds, dandelions and meadow-grass; these are just some of the species of flora that Barry has retrieved from the nature that surrounds his home and studio. “The best place to pick flowers is just off the roundabout, over there,” says Barry, gesturing towards the east of the building. Beside him is a large table of around 10 glass vases and a big plastic bucket, heaped with dried cuttings.
After carefully arranging them at this workstation, and photographing them with his camera-room, Barry prints the images using a colour reversal process. It is a complex and labour-intensive method that he has been developing for around two years, through continuous research, testing and building bespoke equipment. “There’s no consistency, you can’t make the same picture twice,” he says. Sometimes it can take up to eight hours to produce one successful print.
Barry’s method is technical, but it is also spontaneous and unconventional, with many of his materials found on the street or in skips. “Problem-solving is a creative act in itself,” he says. “If I’ve forgotten a bit of kit that does a specific job, or it doesn’t work in that specific space, I don’t give a single second to worrying about it. I immediately think about what I can use instead.”
But this process-focused approach does not mean he doesn’t value the outcome. “It’s more that the process is what leads me to the outcome, and what makes the outcome that much more exciting,” he says. “The pictures I make are traditional, romantic and nostalgic, but they’re not particularly groundbreaking. The magic in the outcome is because of the excitement of the process it took to get there.”
A week after our first meeting, Barry and I speak again over video call. He sits in his darkroom, this time with the lights on, describing a podcast episode in which the ambient musician Brian Eno explains his theory on the act of playing: “Children learn through play… and adults play through art.”
Thinking back to his childhood, Barry remembers his fixation with dismantling toys, and building hybrid machines out of trucks and Lego blocks. “Most of what I do now is butchering broken objects, and playing around with them,” he says. “The wonder of being an artist is that you get to continually play – and probably the reason why I love all the community work and engaging with different groups is because I get to play with other people.”
Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.