The Marginalized, Front and Center
Suzanne DeChillo/The New York Times
By CELIA McGEE
“I took one or two dance classes just to try it, and a course in middle school, which I loved,” the younger Mr. Baryshnikov said. “But it was just for fun.”
Instead, Mr. Baryshnikov, 23, is pursuing a career in photography, a lesser-known avocation of his father, who will go down in history for his ballet dancing and choreography, as well as his acting in projects like “White Nights” and “Sex and the City.”
“He’s always been more interested in the abstract, and he draws a lot from painting,” Mr. Baryshnikov said of his father. “My work is more content-based, it’s more about things.”
And it was a surprise hit earlier this season in Southampton, N.Y., where his first solo show — “Recycled: A Selection From Peter Baryshnikov’s ‘Guajeros,’ ” 16-by-20-inch black-and-white prints of Guatemalan trash pickers and their families, priced at $1,000 each — opened on the conveniently white walls of a private squash court behind a big house over Memorial Day weekend. The event was arranged by Gerson Zevi, an Internet gallery and art-buying service started by Alex Gerson, 25, and Matteo Zevi, 23, last spring as they were graduating from Harvard.
Among those buying the works was Kate De Rosa, a junior executive at Estée Lauder. “I’m from Colorado, and my family collects Edward Curtis photographs,” Ms. De Rosa said. “Peter’s work reminded me of that, and also of Edward Weston’s Mexico photography, the depiction of social realism and nature together.”
Andrew Krantz, who works in private equity at Goldman Sachs, bought “No Way Out,” depicting a man in a rainy ravine, facing the risk of a mudslide. “There’s such a mix of fear and despair and hope as he looks up,” he said, adding of the opening party, “Peter was great with both the kind of traditional gallerygoers you might see at Gagosian and young people just starting out.”
Mr. Baryshnikov got his start in the field “fooling around in photography class” in high school, at Fieldston, he said, where he also fenced and played soccer and ice hockey. He grew more serious at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Wash. “It was good to get out of New York, get fresh air,” said Mr. Baryshnikov, who left Whitman after two years to get his bachelor’s of arts degree in photography from the Art Institute of Boston.
He is close to his father and mother, Lisa Rinehart, a dancer turned writer, and he has two sisters, Anna and Sofia-Luisa, still in college, and a half-sister, Alexandra, a dancer, whose mother is Jessica Lange. He is protective of the family’s privacy and any knee-jerk associations with his last name. The initial invitation to the Hamptons opening didn’t mention the artist by name because, Mr. Gerson said, “we didn’t want it to be about that.”
Though he plays down his family background, the younger Mr. Baryshnikov might as well have been born with a spoon of silver gelatin gripped in his hand. His godfather was Howard Gilman, the late philanthropist and collector of early photography.
“I remember him very well,” Mr. Baryshnikov said. “We had a copy of the huge book of his whole collection lying around. We always had a lot of photography books at our house. As I get older I keep discovering ways that he influenced me at such a young age, like my social conscience. I could tell that his compassion for all living things bled over into his work.”
Before the Hamptons show, in a West Village town house that Mr. Zevi was sharing with two investment-banker friends, Mr. Baryshnikov bent over a laptop screen displaying the final selection for the show and told of the time he provoked gunfire from members of MS-13, the multinational gang syndicate, when he strayed too far into their territory with his camera, capturing their gang tag on a wall. “It was just a warning shot,” he said. He kept that from his parents.
Mr. Baryshnikov processes his pictures at the Camera Club of New York on West 37th Street. “It’s been around since the late 19th century, and people like Stieglitz and Steichen and Strand belonged to it,” he said. Although he said he found the organization in a Web search for darkrooms, it’s only a few doors away from the Baryshnikov Arts Center, established by his dad.
At a worktable at the Camera Club, he acknowledged the incongruity of the trash pickers, overworked children and grimy, desecrated landscapes in his photos staring back at his show’s invited audience in the Hamptons.
“It’s tricky,” he said, “because selling the work and telling the story are two different things. But it’s important to get the work out there, to raise awareness of these people, to find a way to support them in their situations and make money that can be donated to the NGOs that help them.”
Yet, Mr. Baryshnikov said, “this isn’t just photojournalism” in service to advocacy. “Aesthetics are very important to me,” and he is not interested in commercial photography. “I don’t want conflicting interests, between the commercial and art,” he said. “I’ve seen it happen to friends. One started out making portraits, and now he’s shooting for Restoration Hardware. That’s, like, 180 degrees.”
To supplement his income, instead, he has absorbed at least a little of the family business: working at a physical therapy studio in Midtown.