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Book Review: T: A Typology of T-Shirts


Book Review T: A Typology of T-Shirts By Susan A Barnett Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter Markings are a very personal thing for me. I have no tattoos and I have no bumper stickers. Sounds quite boring, but it is really a commitment issue and I hope not a sign of my lackluster personality. What do I want to say that is important enough for me to use my body or vehicle as an advertisement of my beliefs? Clothing, now that would be easier; it is not permanent.

T: A Typology of T-ShirtsBy Susan A Barnett
Dewi Lewis, 2014.
 
T: A Typology of T-Shirts
Reviewed by Melanie McWhorter

T: A Typology of T-Shirts
Photographs by Susan A Barnett.
Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2014. 160 pp., illustrated, 6¾x9¼".

Markings are a very personal thing for me. I have no tattoos and I have no bumper stickers. Sounds quite boring, but it is really a commitment issue and I hope not a sign of my lackluster personality. What do I want to say that is important enough for me to use my body or vehicle as an advertisement of my beliefs? Clothing, now that would be easier; it is not permanent. The T-shirt is a handy a piece of clothing used for this personal declaration. Despite the short-lived nature of their manifesto (provided that the wearer changes into a fresh clothing the next day), the T-shirt’s markings can express much about the wearer. I often wonder, who are these people who want to bear their soul, open themselves up to ridicule or hostility and openly declare what they feel and think on a piece of clothing? Susan Barnett is also intrigued. In 2009 she started to collect these shirts, not the object themselves, but photographs of the backs of the shirts on the wearer in closely cropped environmental portraits. She has hundreds of images from the United States and Europe in this collection and her new book, T: A Typology of T-Shirts published by Dewi Lewis, shows people of varying ages, races and backgrounds in the United States and Europe broadcasting their right to free speech and expression by donning the comfortable and pervasive fashion accessory.

T: A Typology of T-ShirtsBy Susan A Barnett. Dewi Lewis, 2014.

T: A Typology of T-Shirts is, as the title says, a typology. Barnett shows one after the other, individuals proudly showing their style and often their words, slogan or mantra. The word pride reveals itself prominently in her work. Each subject stands tall in posture, likely straighter than their normal stance. They profess through her work, tantalizing us with not just what we see, but also what is left out. It is the ‘what’ that Barnett gives us, but we want to know the who, why, and occasionally the where. Yet, where she excels is her portraiture. Despite the curiosity that the unseen evokes, she presents more about these individuals from the back than conceivably the front and, more poignantly, the eyes, could reveal.

T: A Typology of T-ShirtsBy Susan A BarnettDewi Lewis, 2014.

Barnett has done her job as a typologist, recording one after another. What the project says as a whole references contemporary society more than the individual. There is strength in her numbers. While her photographs have the power to sit solitarily on the page or hang on the wall and inspire reflections, thoughts, or giggles, the groupings highlight contemporary fashion, politics and popular culture in the United States and Europe since the first decade of the 21st century. The book is where Barnett and publisher Dewi Lewis get to play with her work. In the opening image a young man stands in a concrete-filled urban setting clad in black shorts with a multi-key lanyard clipped to his pants and visible portions of a black snake winding around his arm, wearing a black sleeveless T that reads “Life’s Too Short To Wear Boring Clothes”. This image is followed by a man in a park wearing a white sleeveless shirt reading, “FASHION IS SO OUT.” The final in the triptych shows a young woman whose shirt states “Maybe Not”. That sets the mood for this book.

T: A Typology of T-ShirtsBy Susan A BarnettDewi Lewis, 2014.

That sequence opens to the next twenty spreads of T-shirt imagery with religious icons, Magritte inspired surrealist designs and animal patterns. With the final of these graphic plates the tone starts to change as we see angel wings with two .45 caliber handguns conspicuously pointing downward in the design. Themes that follow deal with killing, redemption, misogyny, oppression, anti-violence, money. Warhol, Picasso and Haring’s work all make an appearance along with Elvis, King Kong and Mickey Mouse. There is sex and more sex, drugs and more drugs, death metal, and energy alternatives. Jesus and Virgin Mary mix with Ganesh and Krishna. In one spread Jesus looks skyward on the black T-shirt of a man spending a day at the beach, contrasting with Marilyn Manson seeming to model the same gesture on the shirt of a young woman, maybe on holiday at the very same beach. The sequencing is easy, but brilliant. The opening spreads set the stage for lightness, fun, humor and fashion, but the meat of the book prompts serious conversations about difficult topics through exploring ourselves and our neighbors. In the end, the tone shifts again to optimism with the “Yes We Can” motto that symbolized change for a nation just before the beginning of this project. Filled with thematic groupings and diptychs playing with color, design and ideas, T: A Typology of T-Shirts is cleverly designed to provoke emotion, thought and possibly discussion and curiosity.

T: A Typology of T-ShirtsBy Susan A BarnettDewi Lewis, 2014.

Neither typologies nor portraiture are new, but Barnett uses both of these photographic approaches to create a visual language of her own. The book finishes with words from the three shirts: “No Pictures Please,” Leave Me Alone,” and “Do Not Copy My Style.” Indeed, Susan Barnett.—MELANIE MCWHORTER

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Melanie McWhorter has managed photo-eye's Book Division for 16 years and is a regular contributor to the photo-eye Blog. She has been interviewed about photography in numerous print and online publications including PDN, The Picture Show and LayFlat, has judged the prestigious photography competitions Daylight Photo Awards and Fotografia: Fotofestival di Roma’s Book Prize, has reviewed portfolios at Fotografia, Photolucida, Review Santa Fe and PhotoNOLA, and taught and lectured at numerous venues.


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