Someone once told me that if you have a choice between experience or money, take the experience. You can always make money, but you can’t go back in time. This is one reason why I became a journalist rather than a lawyer. It also explains the used Saturn in my garage and the picture of me with Buzz Aldrin on my desk.
It also explains how I got to know Christopher Barr.
I met Chris in the late 80's while editing a “lifestyle” magazine in Beverly Hills, California. The magazine catered to the Enormous Amounts of Expendable Income crowd, and it was our job to put a celebrity on the cover every week. I tracked them down, Chris took their picture. Over time, we got to know each other better. And every now and then he would let little details drop about his life. That he had started as a junior executive in the aerospace industry. That he used to play high-stakes poker in Southern California casinos. That he operated one of the larger photography studios in Los Angeles. He was different than many of my interview subjects in that he was more interesting, rather than less, the more you talked with him.
The full story: he’s been a professional photographer most of his life, ditching the corporate lifestyle and the poker dreams of his early 20's soon after his sister gave him a garage sale 35mm Yashica camera. Goodbye Vegas, hello…wherever the next shot took him.
Chasing dreams took him throughout the Pacific Rim having enough adventure in three years that would last most of us a lifetime: getting smuggled over international borders to cover insurgent uprisings in the Golden Triangle; shooting the back streets of the Patpong; covering the emergence of the independent South Pacific Republic of Vanuatu.
In 1987 he traveled up the Rio Negros into the heart of the Amazon on assignment for World Vision. He was to be the first photographer to get pictures of the "Zeruhaha," a newly discovered indigenious tribe that were stumbled upon by rubber farmers earlier that year. To make a incredibly exciting story short, after a week in a hammock with a not-all-that-surprising case of dysentery (and the Zeruhaha's not so successful "cure" for it), he made a 4-day trek out of the interior and down river without a paddle (or a canoe for that matter) until he was picked out of the water by local river traders. In spite of the odds and to his surprise, he made it out alive and after several months of recovery, decided a different kind of photography lay ahead.
Did I mention that I knew Chris for more than a decade before I heard any of these stories? If I had a brush with death in the middle of the Amazon or anyone smuggled me over an international border, I’d print that fact on my business cards. I met him a couple of years after he returned from the Amazon, although now he was carefully disguised as a mainstream commercial photographer. He was operating the third of four ever larger and successful studios, photographing celebrities, national politicians, Olympic athletes, corporate billionaires. And merchandise catalogs. And resorts. And fashion. And doing it all in an instantly appealing, memorable, and highly individual style. He was also teaching photography at UCLA and Otis as well as doing guest lecturing at the Brooks Institute and the Art Center in Pasadena. For many years, his studio was ground zero to the largest professional photography intern program in Los Angeles.
In 2000, Hallmark Cards recruited him away to Kansas City, Missouri, where they asked him to manage their expansive photography studio during the most ambitious aesthetic transition in the company’s history. The company made that transition to contemporary photography trends with great success. However, Hallmark is a little...ahem.... tradition-bound. Chris, not so much. Ironic, but the jungles of the Amazon and Southeast Asia were far easier for him to survive.
He returned to the world of freelance photography, and that’s where he is today, based out of Phoenix, Arizona where he lives with his wife Jane and daughter Sophia. He’s still chasing the next great image for movers and shakers of industry, quietly going about his business, remaining calm and unassuming in the most unusual circumstances.
He remains the first person I’d call if I wanted to know what you eat when you’re lost in the Amazon, or what the odds are of hitting a flush on the river in a 6-handed game of Hold 'em...or if I simply needed a really great shot.