Discover the captivating journey of photographer Tom Baril through an insightful interview. From his early fascination with photography to his role as Robert Mapplethorpe’s printer, Baril’s story unveils a rich tapestry of artistic evolution. Delve into his transition from urban landscapes to still lifes, his mastery of pinhole photography, and his exploration of alternative processes like wet plate collodion printing. Experience Baril’s contemporary vision intertwined with references to photography’s modernist roots, offering viewers a unique perspective on fleeting beauty, the fragility of nature, and the passage of time.

Tom Baril, Cobaea Pods (762), 2002, Toned silver gelatin photograph
Tom Baril, Cobaea Pods (762), 2002, Toned silver gelatin photograph

Pulak: What is your first memory of the time photography sparked your interest?  Are there any role models or photographers who inspired you?

Baril: I became interested at a very early age, at 10 or 12 years old. My father had a camera that he would pull out for the holidays. I would grab it and waste a couple of frames and he would get mad (laughs). I got a camera for Christmas when I was about twelve years old. I always loved photography, don’t know why… I took it up seriously late high school, I had a little darkroom at home. Most of my life, I always had a camera and then I had the opportunity to go to New York and enroll in the School of Visual Arts in my early twenties. When I was exposed to the history of photography in school I always gravitated towards people using the large cameras. Ansel Adams, Harry Callahan, Joel Meyerowitz…I knew after a couple of years at school that I didn’t want to shoot with small cameras anymore. Even at school, I bought a 4×5 camera and never looked back because I was frustrated with the small negatives. I would go to galleries and see Ansel Adams’ work and think to myself; ‘What’s going on here?’ I also loved the early still lives from the 20s and 30s. It was so sophisticated. It became a love of the process as much as the image for me. It became obvious that I was very much into the process as well as the history of the process.

Tom Baril, Ponguogue Beach, 1996, Toned Silver Gelatin Photograph
Tom Baril, Ponguogue Beach, 1996, Toned Silver Gelatin Photograph

Pulak: You began printing for Robert Mapplethorpe which you continued to do so for 15 years. How did this relationship come about? Were you also practicing your own work at the time or were you solely focused on mastering your craft in printing?

Baril: He was looking for a printer and the SVA had an employment service. I was in my last year and was looking for a job. I was in their office and they said that there was this guy looking for a printer. I was known as a pretty good printer at the time even in school. I went and met Robert. He liked my prints and hired me on the spot. I was still in my last year at school while I was printing for him, probably two days a week. He wasn’t really well known at the time… I was doing my own work and continued to do so while printing for him. I think at the time I was doing architectural pictures of New York. I didn’t have a darkroom so the job with him was important for me. I got to use the darkroom whenever I wanted to. I did a lot of printing in those days, and you just get better and better at it. When I came in he didn’t really know what he wanted to achieve. He did explain to me what he wanted a little bit. So I changed papers and I changed the enlarger and I got more of what he was looking for. Eventually I had a big influence on how his prints started to look. He was very happy with the changes. Robert didn’t have any formal photography training and never did his own printing. So he had to rely on someone else.

Tom Baril, Chrysler Building at Night, 1997, Photogravures
Tom Baril, Chrysler Building at Night, 1997, Photogravures

Pulak: Your first solo Manhattan exhibition, Quiet Grace, opened three years after the passing of Robert Mapplethorpe. Looking back, how would you describe the transition into becoming an independent photographer and exploring your own visual language?

Baril: For years I tried to avoid making pictures that looked like Robert’s pictures. I didn’t want people to say ‘oh yeah he’s Mapplethorpe’s printer, it’s obvious.’ I didn’t do flowers, and I didn’t do people. I stuck with architecture, a lot of New York architecture. But I did find a way, using a pinhole camera, and I started to do flowers. They were so removed from his pictures that I was comfortable with it. I have to assume that his work did influence me, but I tried very hard not to make it obvious. Eventually I did do flowers with a larger format camera but it was years later.

Tom Baril, New York Skyline, 1995, Photogravures
Tom Baril, New York Skyline, 1995, Photogravures

Pulak: From photography or another medium, who would you say has had an influence on your work? 

Baril: Being in New York, you’re always going to galleries and museums. Just that energy that New York has, has had a big influence on me.

Tom Baril, Gloxinia Buds, 1998, Toned silver gelatin photograph
Tom Baril, Gloxinia Buds, 1998, Toned silver gelatin photograph

Pulak: Could you please talk a bit on your transition from initially photographing urban structures and landscapes to still lives in a controlled studio environment?

Baril: I never wanted to limit myself as far as subject matter. I didn’t want to reject anything as far as subject matter goes. I had no interest in doing portraits, it never appealed to me. Going from the architectural pictures to the still life pictures, it was just a transition. You’re always looking for new ideas and new material. It was an easy transition for me to do the still lifes. They were fun, a little looser than the architecture pictures. The architecture pictures are so formal, they are more technical.

Pulak: There’s a great command of technique that results from your extensive experience as a master printer. And on the other hand, your work behind the lens presents a look at objects with ephemeral qualities. Could you talk a bit about your working process? Do the two inform each other when creating a composition beginning from when you are photographing to when you are in the darkroom?

Baril: The darkroom being so technical, it can get in the way for some people. The are such strict rules if you’re going to do it right. A big part of my interest was the chemistry and the darkroom, but I didn’t want that formal approach to the darkroom to really influence the actual making of the photograph. So I could separate the two, I could relax the rules a little bit more with the tabletop work and then go into the darkroom and go back to that formal set of rules. I would say; don’t let the technical aspects ruin the creative side. Don’t restrict yourself. Maybe the picture isn’t perfect but you’ll make it perfect in the darkroom. I did a lot of pinhole pictures, they’re soft to begin with. I think it did kind of confuse people a little bit. Here I was this ‘technical’ photographer and then all of my pictures were kind of blurry. I liked surprising people.

Tom Baril, Two and a Half Pears
Tom Baril, Two and a Half Pears (800), 2002, Toned Silver Gelatin Photograph

Pulak: You have been shooting photographs using a pinhole since 1992 instead of an optical lens. How were your first experiences with this method like and how did you continue to explore and master this process through time?

Baril: The long exposures I used in the beach pictures, the real soft ones – they’re all pinhole. That dictated the long exposures which brought me to the abstractions created by long exposures. Pinhole camera actually was a huge influence on those pictures because I realized that a photograph taken at a tenth of a second is a whole lot different than a photograph when it’s thirty seconds. So I realized that the pinhole camera was not just a toy but it was a great tool for me.

You had earlier asked about my influences. Those beach pictures made me think of Rothko’s paintings which I love. And I wouldn’t have been able to do them without discovering the pinhole camera. The pinhole camera is actually also responsible for the polaroid negatives because you really can’t see what you’re getting with the pinhole. So I was able to use 4×5 polaroid holders and that way I could check my exposures, check my composition with the pinhole. I liked the polaroid so much it became a part of the process, and again that was all because of the pinhole camera. I started doing the solarizations with the polaroid film. That was another aspect of the pinhole and the polaroid – I would open the packet and expose it to light before fully processing in order to get the solarization. It was all experimentation at that point and it became a huge part of what I did back at that time.

Pulak: The still life studies present extraordinary visual stories using ordinary subjects such as flowers, much like the nature studies of photographic masters of the past. How do you exercise and balance such contemporary vision while making clear references to the modernist school of photography?

Baril: I didn’t worry about how a picture looks like something from, say, 1940. I didn’t think about it. The influence was definitely there but I didn’t consciously try to recreate images from the 30s or 40s and so on. What it was, was that love of process which does go back to the early history of photography. The appreciation of the technical aspects of early photography. That’s how I fell in love with the wet-plate process.

Tom Baril, Hornet's Nest, 2002, Toned silver gelatin photograph
Tom Baril, Hornet’s Nest, 2002, Toned silver gelatin photograph

Pulak: You have used alternative processes such as wet plate collodion printing. Talk about your interest in various photographic processes and mastery of them. 

Baril: It was again, part of that history that intrigued me. With the wet plates for example, the process is just so beautiful. It’s not easy to do because you have to process the plate immediately. It goes in the camera wet, comes out and goes in the darkroom. These guys in the 1850’s went around with a tent because you needed to have a portable darkroom. For most of the wet plate pictures I would do them in the studio with a darkroom right next door. I was able to shoot and process within five minutes. It’s about appreciating the history and it was just fun for me. I would’ve been bored to death just shooting the same format, the same film. I guess I get bored easily (laughs). The process was just as fun as the creation of the image for me. It’s easy to rely on process. The images, maybe, are not so interesting and you can get caught up, you have to be careful not to let all of the technical aspects take over.

Tom Baril, Three Pears, 2007, Archival pigment photograph
Tom Baril, Three Pears, 2007, Archival pigment photograph

Pulak: What would you like the viewer, especially someone who is looking at your photographs for the first time, to take away? There are recurring metaphoric themes throughout your series such as fleeting beauty and the fragility of nature as well as the passage of time. Could you elaborate on some of the deeper meanings behind your choice of subjects and the way they are represented?

Baril: I just want people to enjoy looking at my pictures. If someone enjoys looking at something that I’ve created, if someone enjoys living with something I’ve created, that’s really all there is to it. People get up, get out of bed and enjoy looking at something I’ve made, for me that’s my message. To enjoy art. To look at objects which otherwise might get overlooked and say; ‘hey look at that, that’s interesting.’ You might have never looked at the back of a sunflower like that. Just to look at things differently. If anything, it’s the observer who puts any second, deeper meaning onto the image and not always the person who created it.



Tom Baril PortraitTom Baril was born in Connecticut in 1952. He Graduated from the School of Visual Arts in New York with a BFA in photography in 1980.
Soon after, Baril became Robert Mapplethorpe’s exclusive printer, where he began to develop the lush style that Mapplethorpe’s prints are known for. At the same time, he continued to hone his craft behind the camera photographing urban architecture.

Baril started using a pinhole camera (perhaps to distance himself from Mapplethorpe’s work) photographing still life and seascapes with the soft focus camera obscura. The soft focus and long exposures of the Sea produce a minimalist ephemeral quality to the exquisite prints. Later, through Baril’s mastery of the large format camera and inspired by New York City’s bridges and iconic skyscrapers, he produced some of his most celebrated work.

Tom Baril’s photography is a celebration of the history of the medium. With a nod to the past, he draws on both traditional and contemporary influences and techniques to create something that is very much his own. The work demonstrates a command of technique both behind the camera and in the darkroom. He has developed a unique toning process that enrich and elevate his prints and has also mastered the 19th century wet plate process.

Baril has enjoyed many solo exhibitions worldwide, and his work is included in many prestigious collections, including:

  • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
  • The Getty Museum, Los Angeles
  • The Philadelphia Museum of Art
  • The Brooklyn Museum
  • The LA County Museum
  • Houston Museum of Fine Art
  • The Fogg Museum, Harvard University
  • The Center for Creative Photography, Tucson
  • The George Eastman House, Rochester, NY
  • Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago
  • Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA
  • The Elton John Collection