On Saturday, Jan. 13, the Museum of Ventura County held the opening reception for In High Style: The Photography of Neal Barr, its latest exhibit featuring dozens of photographs spanning the Ventura native’s decades-long career as one of the most noted photographers in the world. The free event also served as a celebration of the resilience of Ventura County and its residents in the wake of the Thomas Fire and its aftermath. The hope, says Executive Director Elena Brokaw, was that people would “come downtown and gather in support of the community . . . and reengage with a part of what makes this community great — our shops, our restaurants, our art, our history.” Donations were accepted on behalf of fire relief efforts, complimentary refreshments flowed, and everyone had the opportunity to enjoy the incredible work of a native son.
Ventura is very close to Neal Barr’s heart. More than just his hometown, it’s where he discovered his love of photography. Barr remembers being a kid and visiting the camera counter at Woolworth’s on Main Street, where Mr. Wilson, the head of the department, would give him tips. He went on to attend Ventura City College, and was mentored by the well-known photography teacher Denning McArthur. After that, Barr served in Germany as a U. S. Army Public Information Office photographer, taking photos for Stars and Stripes. When he returned home, Barr attended the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara on the G.I. Bill.
In 1958, Barr followed his dreams and his gumption to New York City, where he found a job as an assistant to the fashion and beauty photographer Ray Kellman, and later for Wilhela Cushman, the fashion editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. He also worked for the legendary fine-art and fashion photographer Irving Penn. In 1962, Barr opened his own studio and soon his work graced the covers of Sports Illustrated, Redbook and Ladies’ Home Journal. One of his biggest breaks came when he was handpicked by Harper’s Bazaar Editor-in-Chief Nancy White to photograph the Paris Fashion Collections.
“We would work all night for two weeks,” remembers Barr. “The editors would bring in the clothes and we would shoot rolls and rolls of film. It was so fun. The clothes were superb.” He recalls that things were very different back then. “Everything was film in those days. We’d have to wait until the next day to see the work! We were flying by the seat of our pants.”
Barr’s images are part of the fabric of our collective history, from his photographs of athletes like Bill Russell and Sandy Koufax to his portraits of movie stars such as Sophia Loren and Warren Beatty. Some of his most iconic images include a 1967 portrait of Sharon Tate for Harper’s Bazaar, and his 1968 Ladies’ Home Journal cover photograph of model Naomi Sims, the first time an African American model was on the cover of a major women’s magazine. Some of Barr’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Ventura County before, but In High Style: The Photography of Neal Barr represents a full-fledged retrospective of a career that has spanned more than 50 years.
It’s a career that isn’t over yet. After “having the most wonderful adventures in New York,” Barr returned home to Ventura several years ago. He’s been hard at work in his studio, having just completed 1920s Fashion, a soon-to-be-released two-volume set of photography books. At almost 1,000 pages, it is an exhaustive and loving look at real fashion that women of the day actually wore, including dresses, hats, bags, shoes and accessories.
“I’ve lived this long to do it!” Barr jokes. The stunning images are unique in that they show fully coordinated outfits — not just separates. Amazingly enough, every item featured is from Barr’s personal collection. “No one else could have done this,” he adds. When looking at the expanse of work on exhibit, one could say that about everything Neal Barr does.
In High Style: The Photography of Neal Barr shows through April 8 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. For more information call 653-0323 or visit venturamuseum.org.