My Project: Susan A. Barnett

The New York fine-art photographer sees what the backs of T-shirts say about us.

T-Shirt Photography
T-Shirt Photography
Susan A. Barnett

"When people choose a T-shirt, it's not just something to wear," says New York-based photographer Susan A. Barnett (sabarnett.com). "Often it's to communicate a strongly felt message." This was the inspiration for the 58-yearold's series, Not In Your Face.

Barnett, a New Yorker for 35 years, has always done street photography. But last summer, when she snapped a young woman in a T-shirt that had a mask image printed on the back, she says, “I realized the shirt told me so much: her style, her interests.”

She also realized the advantage of this point of view. “Our impressions of people are from the front,” she says, “but we notice how they carry themselves from the back.”

Now, during summers in the city, Barnett haunts well-traveled spots with her Leicaflex SL2 and 24mm f/2.8 lens. Positioning herself near good backgrounds, she seeks out and approaches interesting T-shirt wearers.

“People relax when they realize that you’re not photographing their face,” she says. “When it’s because of what they’re wearing, they feel special.”

She’ll make three bracketed exposures, often with a Sunpak flash for fill. The exchange lasts about 30 seconds.

“I rarely get turned down, though one I wanted most wouldn’t stop,” Barnett says. “His read, ‘A T-shirt can change the world.’”

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