Cover Stories
The Elegant Images of Barbara Bordnick
By Lynne Eodice
Nov 17, 2010, 12:44

© Barbara Bordnick
From her fashion photography to portraits of jazz singers and lyrical images of flowers, Barbara Bordnick's elegant work has been published internationally over the past 35 years. She has also been the recipient of numerous awards, and last year, her portrait of lyricist E.Y. Yip Harburg became a commemorative U.S. postage stamp. She has published volume I, II & III of a series of books entitled and states, "I think creative people are always searching."

Visit liveBooksA native New Yorker who was born in the Bronx, Barbara Bordnick first discovered photography in a roundabout way. "My background is in fashion and fine art," she explains. "I went to Pratt Institute, but really didn't like fashion design. However, I was on a scholarship and had to stay in the program." It was also during her college years when Bordnick got married to a very creative industrial designer.

"One day in a fashion class," she recalls, "a friend and I were looking through Harper's Bazaar. We were looking at one page, saying, "how beautiful," and it occurred to me that she was talking about the clothes and I was talking about the photograph." The fashion image that the girls admired was taken by Richard Avedon, and Bordnick credits this experience as "the very first time I noticed photography." She enrolled in a very basic photography course at Pratt during her senior year, in which students learned "how to load a camera and take a light reading. It was all I knew for a very long time."

© Barbara Bordnick

Almost Famous

After Bordnick graduated from Pratt, she and her husband traveled to Europe, and her husband quickly found work in Copenhagen. "It was September and it kept getting darker outside. We were living in a country where I didn't speak the language, and I was a wife with nothing to do," she recalls. Armed with some of her photographs that illustrated Haiku poetry from her senior year, she approached several photographers. "Of course, everyone was willing to see me because they thought that if you were an American photographer, you were Richard Avedon or Irving Penn," she says. Bordnick was offered a job and was sent to a Scandinavian magazine called Danske Fotomagazinet, much to her surprise. When the publication bought her images for $7 per photo, "I thought I had died and went to Heaven! To pay me and do a story about me, I couldn't believe it."

Soon thereafter, she and her husband left Copenhagen and traveled to other European countries. While in Rome, Bordnick received a package from an American Express office one day. "I opened it up to find these magazines with a double-page spread that read, "Barbara Bordnick: Poetry and Photography." She adds, "I felt absolutely famous, like everybody must know who I am." She came running out and announced to her husband, "I'm going to be a photographer, because it's easy." She says that she enjoys telling this story today to students to illustrate how important it is for a young person to have an initial positive experience. Nonetheless, "It's anything but easy after that," she asserts.

© Barbara Bordnick

Building a Career

She and her husband settled in Paris, "where I had the nerve to go to the French office of the American “Harper's Bazaar." The editor took Bordnick under her wing and introduced her to other photographers. "Quite honestly, I didn't know what I was looking for. I didn't know what a job in photography was," she remembers. They left Paris after a year and a half and came back to the U.S., where she sought work as an assistant, but found that American photographers were hesitant to hire a woman. Bordnick finally served an apprenticeship with a photographer whom she met through a former classmate. He told her that he "desperately needed an assistant, but only did editorial work and couldn't afford one."

In about six months, the photographer closed his studio and left the photo industry. Faced with few options to assist or become a Girl Friday, Bordnick asked her husband to build a studio in their home, and she began shooting and building a portfolio. "When I had a book that I thought was presentable, I went to see the art directors of "Harper's Bazaar" and told them that the French editor sent me--which was sort of true." They told her to do more work and come back, and her tenacious nature paid off. "Finally one day, they called me. I started shooting for "Harper's Bazaar," and that was the beginning. As they say, the rest is history." Since then, Bordnick's extensive client list includes fiber companies such as American Viscose and DuPont, and she's photographed advertising campaigns for DeBeers, Saks Fifth Avenue, Daytons ("one of my favorite clients ever"), JC Penneys (for whom she did Clio award-winning T.V. commercials), Polaroid, IBM, Clairol, and Revlon. Her editorial work appears in magazines ranging from French "Vogue" to "Newsweek" and "Geo." She is also a member of Canon USA's prestigious "Explorers of Light."

© Barbara Bordnick

Lucky Accident

Although Bordnick started out doing fashion, portrait and nude photography, her passion for shooting flowers came about after a serendipitous experience. In 2001, she was scheduled to photograph an Alvin Ailey dancer with the Canon EOS D30 camera. But some miscommunication ensued, and the model didn't show up for the shoot. Faced with having to find a subject on short notice, she went to the nearby Union Square market, purchased a bunch of flowers, and quickly changed her backdrop. "I took one shot with the D30 and looked at the back of the camera and said, "Wow, what's this?" After shooting more images, she viewed them on the computer, "and realized I had stumbled into a place I had never been before."

Not wanting to be a tabletop photographer originally, still-life images hadn't been something she had planned for her portfolio. "But because I was hypnotized from the very beginning by what I discovered, it became a book," she explains. To date, she's done three books on floral subjects, and her series, "Searchings: Secret Landscapes of Flowers" was the inspiration for Jennifer Muller's ballet entitled "Flowers."  She remarks, "The whole process was so magical for me, so complete, that there were weeks when I would shoot during the day and work on the computer at night." She says that her passion for photographing flowers has added a new aspect to her career. "I was getting a little tired of shooting fashion, and was looking for something new."

© Barbara Bordnick

Being Involved

In addition to her photography, Bordnick is a sought-after lecturer and teacher. "At the moment, I'm traveling a lot," she says. She's recently returned from a trip to China, where she was invited by a professional photographer's association to present awards to winners of an international photography competition, as well as giving lectures and showing her work. During this trip, she went to Bei Hei and Duyun in the southern region of China, as well as Beijing, where she met the bureau chief of Reuters. "I was one American among nine photographers from other countries," she says. Bordnick was the self-described "very controversial first woman president" of American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP) in 1977, and is a lifetime member of the organization. She says that when she first joined ASMP, she hadn't attended photography school, and didn't know anyone in the photographic community. However, the organization allowed her to meet professionals in her field who have been very supportive, and eventually became her photographic family. "I've always been very active in supporting photographers' rights," she points out. She is currently a member and formerly the President of Advertising Photographers of America (APA).

© Barbara Bordnick

Beyond the Obvious

"The interesting thing about my career is that I've been extremely fortunate," Bordnick states. "Some people have believed in me much more than I've believed in myself." She cites one experience early in her career when one company took her out to dinner several times to talk her into doing a television commercial. She says, "I didn't know a thing about film. And it wasn't just one commercial--it was a campaign. I had to be convinced to do it, but it was one of the most wonderful things "I've ever done." Polaroid also asked her to introduce the company's large-format film. They talked her into doing the 8x10 promotion, and taught her how to use the camera. She now attests, "I fell in love with the medium." This also led to a calendar project, "The Great Women of Jazz," sponsored by Polaroid. Geo magazine asked her to shoot figure skaters, another diversion from Bordnick's fashion work. "They gave me the job because they wanted to see what I would do with it, because it wasn't something that I did. I have enormous respect for these people, because they didn't go for the obvious."


"Competition today is fierce, but it was also fierce when I started," Bordnick says. "It was the 'Blow-Up' era, when everybody had a 35mm camera." She describes it as a very "up and down" business because of our fickle culture. She says that the good people last, while others may fall through the cracks. "I think for photographers who are just starting out, it's not only important to do what you love, but to find your own truth in it. Your library is your life's experience--and that's the only thing that no one else has. Then your work will become entirely your own."

Learn more about Barbara Bordnick.