Richard Barnes divides his time between commissioned work and personal projects. He looks at architecture as artifact and, placing it within the context of archaeology, challenges our conceptions of the way we inhabit and represent the built environment.
His photographs are in numerous public and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the New York Public Library and the Harvard Photographic Archive. He was a recipient of the Rome Prize for 2005-06.
Throughout the 1990s Barnes worked as the photographer for the joint Yale/University of Pennsylvania excavations at Abydos, Egypt. This experience led him to consider the ways in which we think about and depict the past. Using architecture and the artifacts of excavation, he considers the interaction of past cultures and the way in which they are preserved and interpreted in the present.
In 1995 Barnes began a project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and commissioned by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco to document the renovation of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Originally conceived as a museum for the exhibition of European decorative art and sculpture, it had suffered severe damage in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As the renovation and excavation for new galleries commenced, it was discovered that the museum had been built upon what was once Golden Gate Cemetery. What began as architectural documentation turned into an investigation into the largest post-gold rush era cemetery ever excavated. Over two years, applying his experience from the excavations in Egypt, Barnes created a body of work documenting the disinterment of hundreds of burials from beneath the foundations of the museum.
The resulting exhibition, titled "Still Rooms & Excavations," is an examination of the role that museums play in society, posing the questions: How does an institution determine what is to be saved and validated and what is to be discarded and forgotten? Whose past is worthy of collection and preservation and whose is expendable, and why? The exhibition was first shown at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. It was later exhibited at the George Eastman House/International Center for Photography, San Francisco Camerawork, and the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
Following the trajectory of the artifacts extracted from the ground, to their placement in museums and other exhibiting institutions, Barnes began a body of work based on the role of the museum in contemporary culture. Working first in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, Barnes then extended his research to include such collections as those in the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Comparative Anatomy in Paris, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. This work looks at the museum as a “container” of the celebrated and the forgotten, the odd and the everyday, representative of the dreams and aspirations of the person, culture, or nation that assembled it.
In 1998 Barnes was commissioned by the New York Times Magazine to photograph the cabin of Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber. Kaczynski is now serving a life sentence in prison for crimes committed out of dedication to a cause or madness or both. Kaczynski’s rural home was also seized. The cabin, representing that iconic ideal of rural self-sufficiency and simplicity, was, in this case, seen as a container of evil and depravity. This body of work constituted the inaugural exhibition at Henry Urbach Gallery in New York. It was later shown at the Triennial of Photography in Hamburg, Germany, and was exhibited as part of the 2006 Whitney Biennial. Barnes was awarded the Alfred Eisenstadt Award in Photography for this work.
Recent exhibitions include "Phylum and Refuge," which looked at the hybrid architecture of a collection of bird nests constructed of materials we humans throw away. In this borrowing process the detritus of our lives—Christmas tinsel, hair, dental floss, etc.,—become the building materials for birds. The nests hover ambiguously, between the natural and the artificial. This work forms part of a book, titled Animal Logic, which Barnes is currently working on. It was to continue this work on collecting and the museum for which he applied and received the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome in 2005. His work from Rome resulted in the exhibition "Murmur (Flow Room)," which was cited by Art Forum magazine in their annual “Best of 2007” roundup of exhibitions for the year.
Barnes has lectured extensively, at such venues as the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University, and Parsons School of Art in Manhattan, as well as for the lecture series of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Friends of Photography, where he has also done workshops. He has worked as adjunct professor/visiting artist at the San Francisco Art Institute and has taught in the same capacity at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.