Born in New York City, Tina Barney became interested in photography when she took a course at the Center for Arts and Humanities in Sun Valley, Idaho, in the mid-1970s. Her early photographs were black-and-white snapshots made with a 35-millimeter camera at her family's summer home. By 1981, she had changed to color film and a 4x5 view camera and was producing the large tableaux of friends and family in domestic settings for which she has become known. The inclusion of one such work, her forty-eight-by-sixty-inch print Sunday New York Times, in the Museum of Modern Art's 1983 Big Pictures exhibition brought her critical and popular attention and led to inclusion in such exhibitions as the 1987 Whitney Biennial and solo shows at the Museum of Modern Art and the George Eastman House. In the mid-1980s, Barney changed to an 8x10 view camera and expanded her range of subject matter beyond friends and relatives in their homes to strangers at public places. She has published two photographic books, Friends and Relations: Photographs by Tina Barney (1991) and Photographs: Theater of Manners (1997).
Barney's large-scale photographs of her upper-middle-class family and friends in the 1980s concerned a milieu that had been largely undocumented. These pictures were striking for their sense of familiarity and self-absorption, which prevented an easy identification between the viewer and the affluent subjects of the photographs. Her more recent work, which depicts nude figures in place of family and friends and incorporates direct references to art history, incites an even higher level of psychological tension by inserting jarring elements into mundane environments. The result is a body of photographs that move beyond voyeuristic curiosity to suggest the complex relationships embedded in common situations.
Among her exhibitions are a mid-career exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1991 and the Whitney Biennial, 1987. More recently, her work has been shown at the New York State Theatre in New York, in 2011; The Barbican Art Centre, London; Museum Folkwang in Essen, Museum der Art Moderne, Salzburg, and others. In October, her work will be included in a major portraiture exhibition at The National Gallery, London. Barney was the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship in 1991, and the 2010 Lucie Award for Achievement in Portraiture. Her monographs include Tina Barney: Theatre of Manners, The Europeans, and her new book from Steidl, Players. She lives in New York and Rhode Island.