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Barbara Ess, “Hair” (2018), inkjet print, hair
Barbara Ess, “Hair” (2018), inkjet print, hairCourtesy of the artist and Magenta Plains, New York

Creative lessons from the pioneering no wave photographer Barbara Ess

Following her passing earlier this month, we explore the influences and practice of this insatiably experimental artist – from the impact of Patti Smith albums to redefining the possibilities of the pinhole camera

The groundbreaking artist Barbara Ess was, in the words of Kim Gordon, “a true inspiration, exuberant and brave.” Known primarily for her large-scale photographs made with a pinhole camera, Ess experimented with the distorting effects of this medium for decades before turning her attention to reappropriating footage from the surveillance cameras policing the US border. Her mysterious images transformed the spaces and details of everyday life into strange, liminal landscapes and phantasmagoric phenomena, challenging and playing with perceptions of distance and proximity; real and unreal. 

Born in Brooklyn in 1944, Ess was on the cutting edge of New York‘s no wave scene, editing and organising the experimental cult-status zine Just Another Asshole which launched in 1978. She was a prolific collaborator in other mediums too, forming bands and making music with various musicians and artists throughout her career.

After she passed away earlier this month, we pay tribute to this hugely influential artist by highlighting some of the important lessons we’ve learned from Barbara Ess and her extraordinary lifelong insatiable artistic experimentation. 


In 1983, Ess happened across a diagram of a pinhole camera and decided to build her own. Two years later, after experimenting with her makeshift camera obscura, she exhibited the results of her work in a well-received show at New York’s Cable Gallery. 

Typically formed of a cardboard box with a hole in, this homemade camera denies the photographer many of the functions made possible with a modern camera – removing the ability to manually focus, and blurring the foreground whilst simultaneously making the background appear to recede even further into the distance. But the limitations of the form suited her because, as she explained, “My mind works better when my means are narrowed.”

Making images with the pinhole camera for most of her career, it wasn’t until 2019 that Ess began making work using the surveillance feed keeping watch on the US-Mexico border – in its own way a similarly limited-focus camera. 


It seems almost self-evident that a camera documents life more objectively than a painting, which conjures up a subjective, esoteric vision of the world. But, of course, that’s untrue – like all visual art forms, photographs are subject to myriad creative interventions that totally affect how we perceive whatever is within the frame. Lighting, cropping, the angle of the shot, styling, technique, the exact moment the shutter release is pressed – all these decisions can alter the meaning of a photographic image. 

The first pinhole cameras – the genesis of all future film and photography – are thought to date back to the late 19th century, but it’s a practice Ess began in 1983. “Paradoxically, the strangeness of these photographs, with their subdued, monochromatic colour, is created by the very mechanism that originally gave photography its seductive semblance of realism,” Artforum said of the ethereal, fog-bound images created by Ess with her homemade camera obscura. 

Ess‘ odd, otherworldly photographs illustrate the scope of photography to be so much more than a tool to distil what we think of mistakenly as “realism”. Created using a makeshift pinhole camera, her mysterious images stretch the notion of what a photograph can be and how photography can operate as a means of authentically “capturing” the world around us. Unlike most of the photographs we encounter, her nebulous landscapes and indistinct figures deny us the opportunity to identify the subject-matter. Instead, they allow the same space for interpretation as an abstract painting would and, conversely, perhaps grant us access to a poetic, emotional, subjective truth that more over-determined, literal images prevent us from accessing. 

“I don’t know if there’s an essential reality it’s possible for us to get a grip on,” she elaborates on the theme, “But I know I don’t experience life primarily in terms of the physical world – my emotions and memories play a much larger role in shaping my experience as a human. I know there’s a me that’s more solid than this body I move through the world in.”


Interviewed in the Los Angeles Times in 1991, Ess listed the central inspirations for her art as “my childhood, taking LSD, the important experimental filmmakers, and Patti Smith’s first album, Horses.”

Nearly five decades have passed since Patti Smith recorded Horses, yet it remains one of the most pertinent albums of all time: a vicious, tender, incantatory record; a spell, cast to music. The seemingly loose rock ‘n’ roll song structures and freeform lyrics of Horses occasionally give the impression of spontaneity, almost like the album is composed of fragments of sublime improvisation that just happen to have been captured on tape. That’s an aspect of both Patti Smith‘s and Barbara Ess’s remarkable powers – to create something immaculate that appears effortless; to retain the power of a sketch.

“That record was such a revelation for me when I heard it in 1975. It’s so passionate and alive with the sense of possibilities. It gives off a real physical sensation of joy,” recalled Ess who, like Patti Smith, expressed herself through music and the visual arts. Ess’ work also shares the same experimental, seemingly low-fi quality of Patti Smith’s debut. Also similarly to Smith, Ess’ work is deceptively conceptual and accomplished – embracing accident, spontaneity, and curiosity, yet executed with intention, clarity, and deft skill. 


From 2011 to 2019 Ess put aside her pinhole camera in favour of a different, but equally obscure device. Signing up as a volunteer Deputy Sheriff, Ess gained access to the surveillance cameras monitoring the US border with Mexico. 

Ess‘ interest in distorting proximity and distance reveals itself in Surveillance and Border. The heat-sensitive footage appears abstract and ghostly when reappropriated by Ess – a group of galloping horses, trees blowing in the wind, and a man crossing the Rio Grande in order to successfully cross the border. Having no direction in these events as they unfold, Ess observes from a distance. Her agency is limited to choosing which moments she decides to claim and record for her own purposes; in selecting which stories she wishes to tell. 

The narratives are fleeting but important, and they’re imbued with spectral immortality once seized and reproduced by Ess. Whereas most volunteers may sign up for the task of monitoring the border in order to prevent it from being breached, she has infiltrated the post in order to silently observe from this omniscient vantage point. As the lone man crosses the river that marks the Texan perimeter, we watch the purloined footage cheering him on and it’s thrilling to know that we‘re observing his transgression via the very technology put in place to prevent this very act. 


Barbara Ess’ creativity wasn’t limited to the realm of photography. She was instrumental in launching the no-wave zine Just Another Asshole, edited and organising the first seven issues of this highly-collaborative mixed-media publication that spanned various forms, including zine, vinyl, large format tabloid, magazine, exhibition catalogue, and paperback book.

In 1979 she founded the all-female trio Y Pants with Gail Vachon and Virginia Piersol. After an EP in 1980 and a self-titled full-length album in 1982, Y Pants sadly disbanded. But Ess continued to make music and collaborate with other musicians intermittently throughout her life. In the 198s and 1990s, she worked on various projects with her husband Glenn Branca, an experimental guitarist and composer. In 2001 she released an album called Radio Guitar with avant-garde filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh on Thurston Moore’s record label, Ecstatic Peace.