Tomie Kawakami, the infamous anti-hero in Junji Ito’s iconic horror manga series Tomie (1987), is renowned for her magnetic beauty. Throughout the series, her presence unravels intense psychological and emotional entanglements as men fall in love with her and are driven into jealous rages that often result in insanity or brutal acts of violence.
What complicates this hedonistic tale is that Tomie is immortal. When she is killed – which happens continually – she replicates herself in an endless regeneration cycle. Tomie represents the modern femme fatale – a strong, powerful, unapologetic character who knows what she wants and cannot be contained.
For Los Angeles-based photographer and director Kirt Barnett, Tomie represents a particular dimension of unsettling femininity that informs and inspires her own storytelling. “I’ve always been interested in showing women in different forms to how they are typically seen,” Barnett tells me from her home in Silverlake. “What drives the work is my desire to show beauty and sexiness with fear and provocation.” This intention to focus on the nuance and contradiction of the human condition is the beating heart of Barnett’s practice.
Barnett’s projects are heavily researched and carefully planned, chasing the sweet spot between fantasy and reality. She describes her process as “picking up threads”, often allowing a drawing, location or character to inspire an idea and building a project around that element. The resulting photographs offer an unexpected collision of horror, punk, eroticism, and the glamour of old Hollywood. Each shoot becomes its own distinct fantastical world in which a kind of elevated chaos, rich with irony and satire, is rooted in the everyday. Together with her collaborators, she presents a contemporary vision of femininity that is simultaneously complex and liberating.
Barnett grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, constantly feeling like the “odd one out”, yet managed to channel this outsider energy into her art. “I started drawing at a young age, creating worlds from my imagination,” she shares. “It was about trying to create something in the everyday ordinariness of this boring Southern town I could live in.”
Photography was never on Barnett’s agenda, but after taking an elective in college, she quickly realised its potential to bring her ideas to life in a more visceral way. “I love how photographs have this innate reality to them. We trust in them and believe them, even though they are the least believable thing. Photography enabled me to create something concrete – even if it was all a fantasy.”
Over the last six years, Barnett has crafted campaigns for contemporary fashion brands like Disturbia and Toro alongside an array of playful covers and editorials for Polyester Magazine – the independent intersectional feminist arts and culture publication by Ione Gamble. In her latest cover, she photographed breakout star Sophie Thatcher from HBO’s thriller Yellowjackets. Shot in a studio surrounded by flora and fauna, Barnett plays with the tension of Thatcher’s onscreen character in a simple yet evocative image that illustrates the quieter side of the photographer’s practice.
In sharp contrast, Purgatory, which explores the notion of fast fashion, depicts three models at various stages of decomposition, playing cards on a dimly lit private plane awaiting arrival at their final destination. The incongruous nature of the series actually cuts through the visual noise and offers an unexpected space for meaningful discourse.
Barnett’s approach has been fuelled, in part, by her collaborations with musicians. Working with emerging talent, including Girl Puppy, Glüme, and Kitty Coen, she has found kindred spirits who share her desire to subvert the status quo. “Unlike models, who can sometimes seem hesitant when I share an idea, musicians tend to embrace and trust the vision,” Barnett explains. “It’s exciting for me to push people into a new direction.”
In the opening of Girl Puppy’s video Swallow, we see the coquettish star dressed in all white while scrambling up a mound of dirt with a bloody knife in her back. Later we see her encased in a doll’s house, limbs sprawling out of windows and doors, calling to mind a surreal scene from Alice in Wonderland.
Barnett knits these scenarios together with snippets of found footage that switch between grainy hi-8 VHS footage and 6K capture. “Directing enables me to think differently and push ideas forward,” says Barnett about the experience of making music videos. “It allows me to be more inventive with the performance and movement.”
Barnett is part of a new generation of imagemakers, including Yana Van Nuffel and Savanna Ruedy, who dismantle tired female tropes, offering viewers a dynamic lens on womanhood that centres fantasy and sexual liberation. Trusting in her vision, uniting misfits, and seeking magic in unexpected places keeps Barnett going.
“Growing up in the south, I was surrounded by these odd surreal moments, whether in the wilderness or a dump yard,” says Barnett as we come to the end of our conversation. “I’m fascinated by the things in life that people pass by or don’t see any beauty in, but for me, they can be larger than life.”