In a 1916 letter, Lytton Strachey described an “odd conversation” with an old friend: “She asked me to dinner by telephone: I felt, all things considered, that I couldn’t stand it, so I said I was engaged.” Ninety years later, Evites — those invitations rendered utterly uninviting by their bloodless efficiency — affront me in the same way and I reflexively click “NO” in response.
When a technology is new, we can’t help but be conscious of it every time we use it. Only after subsuming into our everyday existence whatever innovation it now allows us can we imagine its more poetical potential, and bend it to our desires, instead of the other way around.
Photographer Jeff Barnett-Winsby’s recently completed portrait series, “Upon First Meeting,” reveals him as a pioneer in teasing out the poetic potential of one seemingly unpromising venue: Craigslist. He recruited all 38 subjects for the series by placing a personal ad on the ubiquitous Web site, seeking people willing to be photographed at home, for either a print or payment of $15; online viewers of the series enter via the Craigslist page (go to www.jbwphoto.com/craigslist/index.htm).
This latter conceit is a brilliant touch. The site’s familiar stripped-down iconography is made strange and wondrous by the words “on first meeting” standing out in red. When clicking on this brings up the first portrait, a viewer suddenly recognizes this mundane site as a portal into the unknown. Which is fitting, since the project itself functioned in just that way for the artist. Alone in Providence last summer, Barnett-Winsby was looking for a way to meet people and do new work. His ad literally brought him through doors he’d otherwise never have known about, let alone opened.
Participants ranged widely in age, race, class, and gender, and the Web site displays with each portrait the brief e-mail sent by that subject in response to the ad. Oddly, this extra information only adds to the fierce curiosity aroused by the photos themselves: who are these people and why did they let this stranger in?
Barnett-Winsby wondered, too: “I was nervous going to these places, I’d think, ‘No one knows where I am!’ ” It’s this mutual enigmatic vulnerability that makes the work so compelling. “People use this technology for three things: to meet for casual sex, find a date, or shop,” he says. “This was different; there was no pattern for this interaction. There was a constant tension: how do you reconcile the intimacy with the anonymity?”
In our era of electronic surveillance, virtual reality, and online everything, that tension, so apparent in the portraits, increasingly defines our lives. We’re all up close, all right — but is it personal?
“UPON FIRST MEETING” | Opens Friday August 25 | RISD’s Sol Koffler Graduate Student Gallery, 169 Weybosset Street, Providence | 401.454.6141