Kirsten Barnett

Kirsten Barnett Explores Fantasy and Nostalgia Through Photography

Nashville-based photographer Kirsten Barnett has an aptitude for creating imagery that distills nostalgia, fantasy, and aesthetics of Old Hollywood. Naturally, Kirt spent her childhood absorbing the talent around her. At the time, she used illustrative art as a means of expression before turning to photography post-college. Their vivid, dreamy work focuses mainly on youth and visual exploration of culture, relying on her photography as both a vehicle for self-expression and as a tool to examine her own sense of identity.

Kirsten recalls, “I started doing all the styling, MUA, set building, and lighting for my shoots which really made me think critically about the entire look of the shoot. It made me plan things really meticulously which helped me so much to think through my ideas and aesthetics.” Demonstrating her work through many different mediums—photography, costume design, and creative direction to name a few—Barnett’s portfolio stretches across names like Jenny Lewis, Glüme, The Criticals, and Ashley Daniels to name a few.

For our latest interview installment, Kirsten Barnett chats with us about developing her shooting style, approach to creating costumes, how her environment informs her work, and much more. Read on below for our conversation.

Please could you introduce us to the landscape, aesthetic, and inhabitants of the world you’ve created in your images?

In my images, I combine the mundane landscapes of the American urban sprawl with horror and fantasy. Inherently, images have a level of reality to them. I want to find ways to tease that reality apart by photographing unrealistic scenarios in recognizable places. I’ve found this combination lends to the surreal; The recognizable landscape creates a nostalgic feeling, yet the altered state of my subjects makes reality slip.

Over the years, you’ve cultivated a signature style that weaves together dreamy and cinematic elements amongst several other approaches. How did you develop your shooting and editing style?

I was an illustrative artist from age 12 to 22 and drew a lot of fantasy/horror until I took a photography class in college. Once I realized I could make my drawings into reality I got really excited. After that, I began studying my favorite photographers Alex Prager, Gregory Crewdson, and Petra Collins which showed me there’s a place for this sort of work.

I noticed these artists had high-scale production for their shoots, but I was poor so I decided I had to learn all the parts I could without having to hire out. I started doing all the styling, MUA, set building, and lighting for my shoots which really made me think critically about the entire look of the shoot. It made me plan things really meticulously which helped me so much to think through my ideas and aesthetics.

A favorite of mine that you shot is this photo of Ashley Daniels during the fair—it’s obviously in a more public setting than some of your other photos. Does the environment you’re shooting in often inform the way you shoot?

For sure! Even if I have a very specific shot in mind for a shoot it will evolve based on the location. Especially when the weather isn’t on our side like the photo you mentioned of Ashley. We had just shown up to the fair when it started downpouring rain for about 30 minutes and we hid under an awning until it passed. I thought the shoot would be a flop, but the wet pavement reflected all the lights and ended up making the photos so much better. 

Last year, you also had the pleasure of directing The Critical’s “1952” music video. Can you describe how the creative process is different from your more intimate, close-knit shoots?

Ironically “1942” did end up becoming a very intimate project with The Criticals. When I first presented the creative direction of the suits and set building to the guys I thought I could do it all myself, but creating the suits was a much larger undertaking than I expected. To stay on track with our timeline, Cole and Parker ended up helping me make the suits so we all would hang out multiple times a week and eat dinner and work together. It brought us all pretty close and they’re great friends to me today.

Most of my personal projects always end up creating a connection with the model, even if it’s after the shoot. Pretty much all my friends are people I’ve taken photos of! If I really like a model I will usually work with them often which fosters a connection. It’s easier for me to work with people I trust with my visions than always searching for new models.

Not only do you photograph, but you also style and create costumes for some of your subjects—how do you approach the clothing choices?

I approach clothing by trying to understand what the connotation behind the garments could be, and how I could manipulate that and use it to my advantage. I wonder how the clothing will sell the idea I’m working with, especially if I can incorporate kitsch into the clothing choice. I love clothing choices that go against the landscape as well, I think that can make a subject stand out and bring intrigue to an image. 

I’m curious about your thoughts about the push toward making clothing more gender-neutral or universally accessible? 

I think it’s pretty amazing to see creatives redefine the norm and feel confident. I’ve always found it odd that there are men’s and women’s labeling on clothing. My style is a mix of the two and usually, my favorite fit of clothing on me is considered menswear. I work with gender identity in my work, and it makes me happy to see people beginning to understand how clothing can be worn by any person. 

What sources of inspiration have been an influence on your photos lately?

I’ve been looking at old Hollywood photos lately, I have a large book of them I continually go back to. I adore the colors so much in that style – the blues and reds always blow me away. I’m also quite smitten with Fairytales by Petra Collins, it’s so amazing to see fantasy work so well received. 

You’ve worked in so many different mediums over the course of your career, from photography to styling and creative direction. Is there a common thread among all your work?

Definitely! I’ve always really loved mixing hard and soft, like horror and beauty. I think the two fit so well together through every medium. 

Elsewhere in photography, London creative director Mélanie Lehmann opens up about insecurities and chats with us about self-portraiture.