Matt Barnes’ History of Art — Chapter 3 — Sitting Ducks

Did I ever tell you about the time I was on As The World Turns? You know, the old soap opera that was on for 74 seasons until 2010. I stood in line for 6 hours to audition for a speaking role when they did this college tour my senior year. I got 1 of 2 principle roles in the show. (For all you non-industry pleebs, “principle” means I had over 7 lines and was now eligible for my AFTRA card. Now you know.) It was a one time gig. Acting is what I was going to do coming out of high school. Had these hammy-glammy ambitions with no plans in place. I was accepted to a top 10 liberal arts college specifically for acting and placed directly into their BFA program. It takes normal folks who are accepted to the regular program 2 years before they’re allowed to audition for BFA. I declined. I didn’t want to be $100k in debt serving tables at 35 in NYC. I opted out for the safer bet… A BFA in film photography. Ha!

A Cindy Sherman wannabe shot from college

After I got back from the Colorado to Tennessee trip I decided that maybe moving to Tennessee would be a good bet. Start new. Get some grounding under my feet. Go see if they really talk like that. So in February I packed up and moved down. Left my girlfriend here and tried the long distance thing. (moved back because of her 6 months later. We’ve got 2 kids and 3 dogs now.) I got a job in a shopping mall not far from my parents house. I was an Assistant Manager at a chain retail store. Mad glam. No jells, K?

I wasn’t making much money and didn’t know or really get along with anyone. There weren’t any film resources around and I was itchy for a new project. I needed something with a performance aspect. I wanted to act again. Just not on stage and not for anyone else’s entertainment other than my own. I got one of the first camera phone’s right after graduation. It was a flip phone with a .75 megapixel camera that held 36 pictures which could be uploaded to the carrier site for a memory refresh.

On my lunch breaks in between sips of Orange Julius and bites of Cinnabon I would study the people in the shopping mall. I noticed these benches peppered all throughout the mall too. Always with people on them. Southern folks like to hang out. Like, for real, haaaang oooouuut. I realized that if I flipped open my phone, furrowed my brow, pretended I had bad reception, I could capture images of people unbeknownst to them in their natural posture. I’d say “hello” at the phone a few times, look at my phone, frame the subject, say “hello” one more time, look at it again, and then snap the photo. I find the human form so much more interesting when it’s unposed. The lines and shapes are so much more organic and natural.

This was an unfamiliar geography and culture to me. In the name of art, I needed to act scientifically to determine whether or not it was a welcoming or worthy environment. I needed to document my surroundings, in the name of art. I had some really interesting experiences inside that shopping mall. I got a chance to study the community there while familiarizing myself with some of the regulars. Both shoppers and employees. Not one person ever knew or confronted me about snapping these photos. I’d like to think it was my Oscar worthy performance. Perhaps it was just a way for me to exploit the tool. Maybe it was to make myself known within the periphery of that particular community as the guy that always bumbled around trying to get better reception. Nonetheless, this is the project that emerged.

I didn’t last long down there. I found it inhospitable and not to my tastes. I didn’t care to make new friends or even try to get along with people. I think I just missed my friends back home. I’d built a network and the beginnings of a foundation in a community that I thought I could have a hand in making a better place. That last part I’m still working on.

I snapped like 90 of these. This series is from 12 years ago. If you’re interested, here is the rest of the portfolio.

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