Photographer Steve Barrett: A Curious Nature [elan magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
Pictured here: Photos by Steve Barrett of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
His regular clients include Washingtonian magazine, National Public Radio and dozens of university alumni magazines. His photographs have also appeared in Newsweek, Fortune, Time and Vanity Fair.
Yet, if you met photographer Steve Barrett at a party maybe, or bumped into him in the cheese section of Trader Joe’s, you’d never know the charming but humble man is a photojournalist with such an impressive resume.
In an industry filled with egotists, Steve says staying grounded is his secret weapon.
“I never forget that this field has offered me the opportunity to go places I otherwise have absolutely no right to be,” says the Northern Virginia resident who grew up in the small blue-collar town of Franklin, PA. “My philosophy is simply to be as effective as possible for my clients. At heart, I’m a pretty curious guy, and kinda nosey. So I really have a great time doing my job.”
In the last two decades, the kid who was president of his senior class but never quite knew what he wanted to be when he grew up has landed some fabulously interesting assignments.
The Military Officers Association of America chose him to travel with 75 World War 11 Marines and photograph them on the spot where they had fought the battle of Iwo Jima 60 years before. The Christian Science Monitor sent him to Mongolia where he photographed that nation’s first open election. And World Vision magazine sent Steve to teach photography to kids at an orphanage in Bucharest.
“I have always wanted to travel,” says Steve. “But when you go to a faraway place on assignment, it’s much more interesting than merely being a tourist. I never quite know what’s going to happen.”
In fact, some of the strangest things have happened-such as in 1996 when he stood by during a 45-niinute standoff in Bosnia while several 20-something American GI’s talked two older Serbian soldiers into handing over their illegal AK-47s. Or when he was taking photos for a nongovernmental organization in Beijing in 1993, limited hotel space meant he bunked with the late Sen. Alan Cranston of California. Back in Bosnia in 1998, Steve was the last to deplane a C-130 when the heavily shackled war criminal Radislav Krstic sauntered past.
To Steve, though, it wasn’t the prestige or even the adventure that keeps him going.
“I basically have a single mission,” he says. “I want to eat next week. Everything pretty much flows from there.”
In fact, Steve didn’t set out to be a top-flight photographer. After graduating from Pennsylvania’s Gannon University with a degree in anthropology, he considered working in a museum.
“But that’s a pretty sleepy field that requires lots of advanced degrees I knew I wouldn’t have the patience to get,” he says.
A one-way bus ticket to New York City to live with his brothers Rick and Jeff seemed much more appealing. With 60 dollars in his pocket and his brothers’ address in 6 hand, Steve headed to the Big Apple.
The older Barrett boys had started a small construction business and Steve joined the crew. Their clients included Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Christopher Reeve, to name a few.
In his spare time, Steve picked up photography as a hobby. Buying camera equipment, books and film took up much of his spending money. His college sweetheart, Linda Conway, had also moved to New York with him, and the couple soon tied the knot. Then she made a wise suggestion.
“Lindy is an accountant, and of course the logical one in the family,” says Steve. “It didn’t take long for her to figure out that maybe I should try to make some money from all the camera equipment I had bought.”
That little kick in the pants inspired him to peddle himself as an assistant for a few well-known photographers in New York City. Then when the couple moved to the D.C. area in the 1980s for Linda’s job, Steve decided he’d try to make photography his career.
He worked as an assistant for a couple of years and eventually landed freelance jobs of his own. By the time the couple’s son Max, now 11, was born, Steve was getting calls from the biggest magazines in the region.
Indeed, some famously fascinating faces have found their way to the other side of his lens, including Russian President Boris Yeltsin, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
“It was great to meet Mrs. Thatcher, of course, but about three minutes into the interview, the reporter I was with from USA Today made her mad because instead of lobbing softball questions about her new book, he asked her opinion of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal,” says Steve. “Apparently, she isn’t one to suffer fools gladly and got up and walked out. Luckily, I had gotten in a few shots before she left.”
As for Yeltsin, Steve says the shoot was much less entertaining than he would have thought-and much easier, too—especially when compared to his experience with Mubarak.
“We had arranged to do the shoot at Blair House, which is right across from the White House. It was a nice room, but when I got there, the window shades were drawn and Mubarak’s handlers wouldn’t let me bring in any lights. As you can imagine, that made it kind of tough to get a nice, well-lit shot.”
One of Steve’s favorite assignments, perhaps, came in 1999 for U.S. News & World Report when he rode on Air Force One with President Clinton.
“Before the trip, I wasn’t his biggest fan,” Steve admits. “But there I was, sitting with the rest of the press in those seats in the rear of the plane, and I got up to use the restroom. Suddenly there was Bill right behind me. I had my camera with me, and as soon as he approached, I popped off about 10 to 15 frames before the other press guys could even grab their cameras.”
After meeting Clinton in person, Steve says it was clear why so many people admired him: “He looked me straight in the eye and had a nice, semi-personal conversation with me. But what blew me away is that he had this ability to make me feel like I was the only person on the plane. That encounter really changed my opinion of him.”
In the years since, Steve has taken photos of dozens more politicians, executives and celebrities. A few that stand out include James Earl Jones (“I was left alone with him for a half-hour in a green room and kept thinking to myself, What should I say to Darth Vader?”) and Natalie Merchant.
“I took her band to the shoot in my Ford Escort while she rode in the limo by herself,” he says. At the event, though, Merchant redeemed herself in the photographer’s eyes when she introduced him to R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stripe.
But maybe the favorite shot he’s taken in recent years came when Steve was flying around Washington in a top-flight helicopter for an article on presidential transport.
“When we got over my house, I took a shot of my rooftop and neighborhood. Now that was cool.”
The best is yet to come, Steve believes, for this summer he will be traveling with his son Max to Mozambique to teach photography to children whose parents have died of AIDS. “I’m really looking forward to that.”
For more visit www.stevebarrettphotography.com.