Sophie Barbasch
Make Up at the Drive Thru

Make Up at the Drive Thru
18.5" H x 23" W
Catalogue Number
Current Location

About the Artist

Sophie Barbasch

Light Work RelationshipArtist-in-Residence, 2021


For a more recent CV or bio please visit the artist's website,

Sophie Barbasch is a New York-based photographer. In her work, she explores structure and its dissolution within both public and intimate spheres. Barbasch earned her MFA in photography from Rhode Island School of Design and her BA in art and art history from Brown University. In 2016 she received a Fulbright Fellowship in Photographic Research to work in Fortaleza, Brazil. Her residencies include the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, MASS MoCA, and the NARS Foundation. Her work has appeared in Artsy, Hyperallergic, The Heavy Collective, Lens Culture, Musee, Slate France, Topic Stories, and Urbanautica, and she has written on photography for The Brooklyn Rail. Barbasch has exhibited internationally and recently had a solo show at Galerie Bohai in Hanover, Germany.



Writing about art can seem like a fool’s errand. We point out an artist’s choices, guess their aims, and then judge the result. The critic articulates what works or doesn’t work, so that interested readers can appreciate what has been accomplished and so encourage the artist to repeat and build upon any success. Logically, we might assume such appreciation makes the artist’s performance better over time, and that artists improving would improve art overall. Yet, as a matter of history, artmaking never actually gets perfected. There is no such thing as progress in art, only change.  We witness development, but remain bewildered about what art’s culmination could ever look like. Writing about an artist’s latest triumph provides no one—especially the artist—a way to repeat that success tomorrow. Indeed, the better the art, the more likely that analysis will fail to account for its achievement.

     Sometimes the critic’s bag of tools can come in handy, of course. Take these photographs by Sophie Barbasch. Noting their formal characteristics can orient us to what’s going on here—their semantics. We see that tilting planes define receding spaces (a tabletop, a pile rug, moss, an expanse of dead grass) and the experience of texture runs through each image: a sea of gold carpet gives way to a pattern of soft waves in the grass and then velvety green groundcover. Summer meadow becomes dry late-season weeds. Young Adam’s faun-locks mutate into a curtain of synthetic blond wig. The placement of hands emphasizes the sense of touch—lipstick to mouth, hands to foot or neckline, inside warm pockets. These forms will suggest themes: in Barbasch’s work, bodies often slump against walls or recline in water. Here, they lie on the ground or upon a car for no particular reason. We find this horizontality—this thematizing of gravity—in Adam’s bent spine or his little still-life of makeup, and in supine boat hulls lying in a field or a manicured leg on the floor. Gravity begets contact, again implying the notion of touch. Shapes then continue the theme: strawberry Kool Aid hair radiates out from the head and floats upon the ground, just as rural powerlines converge upon, and radiate out from, their hub of gravity-defying contact on the telephone pole.  

     As a rule, with pictures, form and content are the same thing. “Red lipstick” is both red and lipstick. Here, the shameless hole cut through the conifers for the passage of powerlines is at once a shape (parentheses), a void, and a sign, which all conspire to give the image its pathos. Pink tops and dyed hair likewise encode social meaning. Clearly, one subject of the project is a place (the small coastal town of Brooklin, Maine) and two protagonists—the photographer and her cousin. Clearly their stake in it is a certain game of theater involving bonds of mutual trust and identification (with one another) and implied misidentification (with the rest of the family).  But for many, the social issues of Adam’s experiments with gender or the psychological problem of “family” or the clash of geographical cultural values may be the least interesting of the themes evoked—perhaps because, as issues, their politics are so legible and their meanings so specifically contemporary. However generative for the performers these concerns might have been, the audience is left only with the images, which are anything but social documents.

     And here the critical enterprise begins to falter. To say that Barbasch’s pictures are ultimately about artifice or gravity or sexual questioning or Maine casts the operation of describing them as something tacitly rational, and their meanings somehow conceptual. Calling her subjects “metaphors” does the same thing. The photographs affect us—succeed—not because they illustrate ideas, but because they impart a mood or state-of-mind that transcends words, and a psychic condition that defies categorization. “Touch” suggests connection, but the characters here are generally isolated, absorbed in their own thoughts and activities. Instead of a clean dichotomy between big-city glamour and rural earthiness, we find an ambivalence between nature and culture, where grounded boats ride on an ocean of grass, modern roads and transmission lines cleave the landscape in order to connect people who nonetheless remain invisible to us, and living bodies are overlaid with store-bought enhancements. Even one’s gender is something that needs puzzling out. Barbasch offers us a world of gently ambiguous displacements, mystical illumination, and the discomfort of not really belonging. Categories are the problem. And yet, the closer we approach this ineffable condition with our words and concepts, the farther we find ourselves from actually specifying what the pictures are doing for us when we consider them. These photographs demonstrate that one purpose of criticism may be to reveal just how reductive criticism seems when confronted with genuinely accomplished work. Such work invites humility, not the pretense at critical mastery.

Douglas R. Nickel

Douglas R. Nickel is the Andrea V. Rosenthal Professor or History of Art and Architecture at Brown University in Providence, RI.

Sophie Barbasch lives in New York City and completed her residency at Light Work in July 2021.