From the camera he uses to capture his surroundings to the way he sees the world, Ken Barrett is a traditionalist in every sense. Barrett, a visiting instuctor of photography, preserves all that surrounds him with black and white tones.
His best friend gave him his first camera, a Yashica-Mat 120 with a twin lens reflex, when he graduated high school in 1969. From then on, Barrett was hooked.
“I’ve done photography for so long it’s just what I do — it’s just what I’ve become,” said Barrett.
Barrett spent a year at Brevard Community College taking photography classes from a former drill sergeant, and received a “C” in his first photography class. His instructor said he “didn’t really understand composition.”
“Photography is one of those things if you practice enough and you’re dedicated enough, you can become a good photographer,” Barrett said with a nod as he gathered up scraps of film and empty cassettes in his small classroom at Flagler College.
Years later, Barrett was able to photograph ports such as Barcelona, Spain, North Africa, and Bermuda while sailing on the Schooner Lita as the cook. The vessel was owned by George Dryden, nephew of George Eastman, who was the creator of Kodak.
Barrett’s ability to cook opened up a world of possibilities for him. It took him outside the sleepy, beach town of St. Augustine where he grew up.
“St. Augustine is such a great town, but it can be restricting,” he said shaking his ashy, salt and pepper hair away from his face. “When you’re in a new place, everything is new to the photographer, so the field is open.”
Barrett appreciates the environment that surrounds him. His respect and love for it comes across in his photos whether he is documenting the renovation of the Zorayda Castle or photographing shore birds at 7 a.m.
The Director of Public Information at Flagler College, Brian Thompson, was a former student of Barrett while attending Flagler. Thompson said there is something distinguishing about Barrett’s artwork.
“There’s kind of a grittiness, a graininess to it — there’s a lack of perfection which is what (Florida) is,” Thompson said.
Barrett has worked hard preserving Florida’s history, as well as St. Augustine’s. He was a park ranger at Castillo de San Marcos for eight years, during which he helped organize a photographic collection of the national monument.
In 1985, Barrett was awarded with the Distinguished Service Award by the National Park Service for his work with the St. Augustine Preservation Board.
He then went on to organize photographic collections at the St. Augustine Historical Society and the St. Augustine Lighthouse. “I just sort of found myself working all the time, photographically,” Barrett said.
When he decided to teach, Barrett said he found the best of both worlds. “I feel like I don’t really have a job. It’s just the work that I do,” he said. He likes the idea that he may be making a difference in his students’ lives.
Thompson traveled to Cuba as a reporter for The St. Augustine Record and during his time there he remembered Barrett’s lessons.
“It’s funny that when I’ve done these things (for The St. Augustine Record), it’s been stuff that he’s taught me that still carries through today,” he said.
Thompson mentions one of the things Barrett does well is he brings the love for photography out of you. “He’s good at kind of forcing you to bring out your own creativity, come up with your own eye and style.”
Amanda DuBois, a student of Barrett’s for four semesters, said Barrett is very genuine and perceptive. “He’s not only my teacher, but my friend,” DuBois said.
“I have no children, but I have thousands of students,” said Barrett gesturing around the old, dusty classroom that smells of film developer.
In this digital age, Barrett still stays loyal to his manual Leica and Nikon SLR. He has not ventured into the new realm of digital photography and does not plan to anytime soon because of the love for the process.
“I’m totally in charge of my black and white work from the time I put the film into the camera until I make the photograph,” he said firmly.
While he does not completely dismiss the idea of digital photography, he feels there will be a shift back toward traditional photography in a year or two. In the meantime, Barrett feels the “creative part in photography is in the camera and in the darkroom, not in front of a computer screen.”
DuBois said by teaching young photographers growing up in a digital age a love for traditional photography, Barrett is “preserving the darkroom.”
“I’m always working in the darkroom,” said Barrett as his mustache twitched in rhythm with his words. “It was my first love and still my current love.”