By Hope Katz Gibbs
Be Inkandescent Magazine
His photographs have appeared in Newsweek, Time, and Sports Illustrated for Kids, as well as _Washingtonian and dozens of alumni magazines for universities, including Harvard and NYU.
Yet, if you met photographer Steve Barrett at a party, or bumped into him in the cheese section of Trader Joe’s, you’d never know he was a photojournalist with such an impressive resume. Indeed, in an industry filled with egotists, Barrett 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. Case in point: The photo he took of the U.S. Senate Chaplain, Rear Adm. Barry C. Black (Ret.), pictured above.
“My philosophy is simply to be as effective as possible for my clients. At heart, I’m a pretty curious guy, and kinda nosy. 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.
- Barrett spent the day after the earthquake last summer 3,000 feet down in a coal mine in Southern VA taking photos for a direct mail campaign for a political candidate. I know people do this every day, but for me it was thrilling and a bit scary. [Photo tip from Stevce: When shooting in a coal mine, bring a good light.]
- The Military Officers Association of America chose him to travel with 75 World War II Marines and photograph them on the spot where they had fought the battle of Iwo Jima 60 years before.
- He once boarded a plane for Mongolia, where he photographed that nation’s first open election. (Those photos appeared in the _Christian Science Monitor.)
- World Vision_ magazine sent Barrett to teach photography to kids at an orphanage in Bucharest.
“I have always wanted to travel,” says Barrett. “But when you go to a faraway place on assignment, it’s much more interesting than being a tourist. I never quite know what’s going to happen.”
In fact, some very interesting 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, and a limited hotel budget meant he got to share a room with the now-deceased Sen. Alan Cranston of California.
Back in Bosnia in 1998, Barrett was the last to deplane a C-130 when the heavily shackled war criminal Radislav Krstic shuffled past with several military escorts.
To Barrett, though, it isn’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, Barrett 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 in his pocket and his brothers’ address in hand, Barrett headed to the Big Apple.
The older Barrett boys had a small construction business and Steve Barrett joined the crew. Their clients included Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol, and Christopher Reeve, to name a few.
In his spare time, Barrett 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 Barrett. “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.
When the couple moved back to the DC area in the 1980s for Linda’s job, Barrett decided he would 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 17) came along, Barrett 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 Barrett. “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, Barrett 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 in DC, 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 Barrett’s favorite assignments 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,” Barrett 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, Barrett 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, Barrett has taken photos of dozens more politicians, executives, and celebrities. A few that stand out include former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, and actors George Clooney, Richard Dreyfuss, and 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 musician Natalie Merchant.
“I took her band to the shoot in my Ford Escort while she rode in the limo by herself,” he says. Merchant redeemed herself in the photographer’s eyes at the event when she introduced him to R.E.M. vocalist Michael Stripe.
The favorite shot he’s taken in recent years came when he was flying around Washington in an HFX-1, the president’s helicopter, for an article on presidential transport.
“We happened to fly over my house, and I took a shot of my rooftop and neighborhood. Now, that was cool.”
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Photos, above, from top to bottom, include:
- US Senate Chaplain Barry Black
- SWAT team exercise in Charles Town, West Virginia
- Family photo for the nonprofit organization, “Flashes of Hope”
- Sports Illustrated Kids magazine’s “Sports Kids of the Year 2009”
- Anne Khoobiar Heap, cover, Business Asset magazine