From May 19 to Sept. 2, the University of Maine Museum of Art hosted an exhibit titled “I Wear What I Want.” Composed of over 100 photos by Susan Barnett, the collection depicts people of differing backgrounds turned away from the lens.
Unlike other portrait series, Barnett’s focus isn’t on the individuals, but rather what they are wearing. The shots allow us to see the subjects’ environment, hairstyle, body and clothing. By shifting the focus off of the face, Barnett’s work evokes bigger questions regarding expression, identity and the audience’s own judgment.
Despite the vast differences between them, each person is wearing a T-shirt with phrases and images that reflect anything from deeply rooted ideologies to someone’s favorite band. Barnett uses T-shirts as social mirrors. They exemplify this nation’s history and our phases of culture; the things that brought us together and tore us apart.
Barnett started taking photographs at a very young age, but her passion for the T-shirt began while studying art history and studio art at Marymount College in Tarrytown, N. Y. As a student activist, she created silkscreen T-shirts with slogans in protest against the Vietnam War. Today, Barnett’s photos are featured across the country. Having completed over 60 exhibitions, Barnett also published a book titled “A Typology of T-shirts.”
In an interview with Cara Buckley of the New York Times, Barnett discussed the photo she captured eight years ago of a women’s T-shirt. That photo ignited and inspired her “Not in Your Face” series.
“I found out so much about her, from the back without seeing her face. It had to do with her identity, her declaration of who she was that she wanted everyone to see,” Barnett said in a New York Times interview.
Appearance is integral in self-expression. Who someone is, what they are interested in or how they feel about the world can be communicated by making a choice as simple as what shirt to wear. Expression in this form can be found on our own campus. Lydia Elwell, a second-year student at UMaine, is a perfect example.
Wearing a screen printed T-shirt featuring Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Dinosaur piece, she explained how she purposefully sought out and purchased it because of her love for the artist.
Elwell thought that if people had to determine the elements of her personality based on the shirt, they might assume that she is interested in art. “I do have a sincere interest in art, even though I’m not really artistic myself,” Elwell said.
While that assumption may apply to Elwell’s personality, she recognizes that there can be discrepancies when making judgments based on so little information.
“Unfortunately, I think people do judge each other based on their clothing. I’m not sure that’s a good thing, but I think everyone does it,” Elwell said.
Barnett’s work emphasises the potential damage that can be created by quick judgments. She gives the audience a small window into who her subjects may be. That way, the observer has the full control over what they see in the photo.