Discipline: Interdisciplinary Art, Visual Art – photography

Barbara Ess

Discipline: Interdisciplinary Art, Visual Art – photography
Region: Elizaville, NY
MacDowell Fellowships: 1997, 2003, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2010

Photographer, musician, and writer Barbara Ess (1948-2021) was most widely known for her large-scale photographs made using a pinhole camera, producing blurred, haunting images that evoked dreamy anxiety, shattered romanticism, and the disquiet of the late 20th century.

Ess earned her B.A. at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor in 1969 before going on to attend the London School of Film Technique. Returning to New York, she became part of the downtown Manhattan art scene of the 70s and 80s, playing in the No Wave bands Disband, the Static, and Y Pants, in which the musicians played toy instruments or in some instances fried-chicken buckets, enhancing their thin and tinkling sounds with electric bass, keyboard, and, occasionally, a hammer. She also launched the influential mixed-media publication Just Another Asshole, which took on various forms over the following eight years, including a 77-track vinyl LP and an insert in Artforum. Ess employed an open-submission process, coediting issues with Jane Sherry and with avant-garde musician and composer Glenn Branca, her bandmate in the Static.

After coming across a diagram of a pinhole camera in a 1983 newspaper article, Ess built one of her own and began experimenting. Her first show was well received, and she would go on to work in the format across her entire career, exhibited widely. Ess's work has been the subject of cover stories in Artforum and Art in America magazines. She has had one-woman shows at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Curt Marcus Gallery, New York; Faggionato Fine Arts, London; and Fundacion la Caixa, Barcelona, and at galleries in Madrid, Los Angeles, Paris, Antwerp, Cologne, and Washington. In 1993 the Queens Museum curated the traveling exhibition "Barbara Ess: Photography, Installation and Books."

Ess continued to make music through the 1980s, and began teaching photography at Bard College in 1997. She played music in the sound duo Radio/Guitar.

In 2005, she published I Am Not This Body, a book of her pinhole photographs, which was selected as one of the ten top photography books of the year by the Village Voice. At MacDowell in the summer of 2010, Barbara Ess worked on a project of photographs and short videos about remote viewing she developed while at MacDowell in the summer of 2009.

The critic Carlo McCormick has written that her work “draws our attention to the intense primal emotions and experiences that exist like brittle moments of truth even within the world of simulation.”

Portrait courtesy of the 3A Gallery



Barbara Ess worked in the Putnam studio.

The Graphics Studio (as it was originally named) was converted to its present use in 1972–1974 through a grant from the Putnam Foundation, and originally served the property as both a power house and pump house. Well water was pumped from a large cistern to Hillcrest, the Foreman’s Cottage, and the lower buildings closer to…

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