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Cabin Fever 

Photographer Richard Barnes shoots the Unabomber's shack

Wednesday, Apr 14 1999
Courtesy Craig Krull Gallery
EVERYBODY KNOWS BY NOW THAT TED KACZYNSKI was in the grip of a very bad idea. A high-strung nature lover who believed random killing of innocent people would benefit the environment, Kaczynski created the weapons of destruction for his grisly project in an isolated backwoods cabin he built himself.

A humble shack with the generic simplicity of a plastic house on a Monopoly board, the cabin was confiscated by the police in 1996, when Kaczynski -- a.k.a. the Unabomber -- was arrested after 18 years of terrorism that left three dead and 23 injured. The 10-by-12-foot cabin was then transported from its site in the tiny town of Lincoln, Montana, (population 1,500) to a nearby Air Force base and then on to Safe Store, a privately owned facility in Sacramento where the government stashes evidence for use in important trials. Kaczynski is now serving four consecutive life terms without parole, plus 30 years; the cabin remains under lock and key and, like a massive lump of kryptonite, continues to give off a sinister glow.

The American public finally got a look at the cabin last winter, when The New York Times commissioned Bay Area photographer Richard Barnes to shoot it for publication in the Times' Sunday magazine. "I think the Times expected me to take a surreal picture of the cabin, and they wanted me to photograph it surrounded by other things in the warehouse," says Barnes, whose giant, haunting photographs go on view Saturday at the Craig Krull Gallery. "There was a vehicle used by drug dealers, and parts of several broken-up planes that had been in accidents. I thought that sent the wrong message, though, so what I did instead was isolate the cabin in an empty room, hang a black backdrop behind it, and shoot it from all four sides."

These four depictions of the cabin, which appears to be floating in an endless void, serve as the centerpiece of Barnes' show. They're eerie, highly abstract pictures, and they seem to evoke the idea of Kaczynski's cabin, rather than the physical structure itself. Even more disconcerting is Barnes' color photograph of it in the Sacramento storage facility; dwarfed by the vast, empty room, the building has the quality of a diabolical toy.

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Barnes says that as far as he knows, nobody else has been allowed to photograph the cabin, and that he landed the coveted assignment on the basis of "Still Rooms & Excavations," a project he completed in 1997. (Barnes was hired to document the retrofitting of the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, a San Francisco museum built in 1924. Barnes stumbled onto a bigger story, however; digging into the museum's substructure revealed that the building had possibly been erected on the site of Golden Gate Cemetery, a potter's field that housed the graves of over 750 of San Francisco's poorest citizens.)

"I was never left alone with the cabin, and was forbidden to photograph inside it," Barnes says of the shoot, which took two full days. "I peered in the windows, of course, and there are two levels to the cabin. There's a ladder to a loft space, but the bed had been taken out, along with almost everything else." After completing the session at Safe Store, Barnes felt one more image was necessary to complete the series, and he visited the cabin's original location in Montana. "The site is isolated in the middle of this bucolic setting, where the FBI has erected a chainlink fence defining a space where nothing exists."

BORN IN NEWARK, NEW JERSEY, IN 1953, BARNES grew up outside Ann Arbor, Michigan. In 1972 he moved to Northern California, where he earned a B.A. in journalism and fine arts at U.C. Berkeley in 1979. "My degree is in journalism because that was the only department teaching photography then," says Barnes, who began taking pictures in 1976. Though he was impressed by the austere photographs of industrial landscapes then being produced by Lewis Baltz and Robert Adams, it was the Minimalist sculpture of Joel Shapiro, James Turrell, Gordon Matta-Clark and Michael Heizer that really excited him.

"After I left Berkeley, I spent 18 months in Japan working on a book on Japanese architecture, and that experience cemented my interest in architectural abstraction. My work also explores ideas associated with artifacts, and I've worked extensively on archaeological excavations in Egypt," says the artist, who recently completed a book on the renovation of the Stanford Museum of Art.

"I'm interested in visionary projects that fail, as well, and I just finished shooting Biosphere 2, which is this huge terrarium in Arizona designed to house human life. It's proven to be a failure, but Columbia University is maintaining it. I also went to England and shot the Millennium Dome, which is a gigantic structure in Greenwich that many people think is ridiculous. It's a high-tech building conceived to house art installations, and all its structure is on the outside. I'm also hoping I can convince a publisher to let me photograph Las Vegas."

These projects sound considerably more whimsical than Barnes' pictures of the Unabomber cabin, which, the artist confesses, left him with conflicted feelings about Kaczynski.

"I heard he wanted to see the photographs, and was recently asked if I'd be interested in corresponding with him," says Barnes. "I said no -- partly because there's a lot in what he says that I respect. His means were completely wrong, of course, and if we met I'd feel compelled to ask him how he could justify committing murder for his cause.

"Ted brought profound suffering to quite a few people, and it disturbed me to be with the cabin. It's the most banal piece of architecture imaginable. Why is this simple, stupid structure so important? Because of what went on inside it, and because it represents the dark side of idealism, which is fanaticism."

RICHARD BARNES' UNABOMBER | At Craig Krull Gallery | Bergamot Station, Building B3, 2525 Michigan Ave. | Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. April 17 through May 22 | (310) 828-6410

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