Life & Culture

Hunter Barnes, the Photographer Documenting America’s Outsiders

A new show at David Hill Gallery in London features Hunter Barnes’ photographs of America’s lowriders, coolers, bikers and Bloods

In 2003, Hunter Barnes travelled across the United States, photographing the outsider cultures he encountered along the way. The North Carolina native went to New York to photograph bikers, East St. Louis to shoot Bloods, the New Mexican deserts to capture lowriders, and California State Prison, where he was the first person to be permitted to photograph coolers, inmates often serving 25 years to life.

“When I travelled to take pictures, I would go on the road with nothing – I don’t even know how I did it,” Barnes tells Another Man. “I was 23 years old. I slept wherever, ate whatever, I was in it. It was the first time I developed patrons who gave me money to make editions of prints. I only do editions of four and two artist proofs.”

Now, a selection of those rare vintage prints is on view for the first time in over 15 years in Outside of Life: Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods. The series began at the outset of Barnes’ career through bikers named Mike and Joey, who were old family friends. “It was a new world to me. I was invited in and I appreciated their trust,” he recalls.

“When I started doing this project, the people I was photographing were perceived in a certain way,” he continues. “The light I showed them in was an honest one. People are people. They all have families, they all lives, they have kids. I found almost everywhere I go the common thread is daily life.”

It was a moment that hit him when he travelled to East St. Louis. “At the time, it was the murder capital of America. It wasn’t a safe place to be. They were really good to me,” Barnes says. “What I found beautiful was the moment when I was sitting on the back porch of a friend’s house with his grandmom drinking lemonade and I flashed back to being a kid sitting on the porch with my grandmom drinking lemonade. It was different neighbourhood, different place, different scene – yet kind of all the same in a certain way.”

As a guest in other people’s lives, Barnes is invested in building a connection that goes far beyond the reason he is there. He never brought his camera with him to meet the people he wanted to photograph. “They always made the comment, ‘Oh you’re a photographer without a camera?’ I was like, ‘Well, yeah, we’re just getting to know each other, man,’” Barnes says.

“Sometimes there are only three or four frames shot, but we might have been hanging out for two weeks. Then, it’s the time and in a few frames, we got it. With the film there is still such a sense of purity. At that time I only processed the film because I didn’t have the money to make contact sheets. I was literally editing the film with a loop in a window.”

After a year on the road, Barnes decided to collect his photographs and self-publish the book, Outside Of Life with the help of designer Jesse Mathews. They printed 1,000 copies, which he hand numbered and signed, but without distribution Barnes’ first publishing experience was strictly DIY.

“I remember carrying a case of books in my car and every once in a while I’d sell them out of the trunk to get to the next town,” Barnes says. “I sold a certain amount and housed it. It was so intense and I had to move on to the next. You can’t swim against the river. It came back around completely unexpected at a different time in life.”

Hunter Barnes: Outside of Life – Lowriders, Coolers, Bikers and Bloods at David Hill Gallery in London until November 29, 2019.