Ess earned a B.A. at the University of Michigan and attended the London School of Film Technique.
Barbara Ess is known primarily for her large-scale ambient and shadowy photographs that are often made with a pinhole camera. They are usually printed with just one earthy color, such as amber or muted blue-black. They are shown internationally in solo and group exhibitions and reviewed extensively.
Her images are intentionally left vague and unresolved. As such, they initiate a range of emotions from dream anxiety and helplessness, to being captivated by a fantasy and the romantic aesthetic quality of her old-fashioned pinhole method. Her pictures hark back to the nineteenth-century approach to fine-art photography known as Pictorialism and to the well-known amateur photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The Pictorialists and Cameron often included nature, women, and children as subject matter, creating tableau vivant imagery that evoked moody, open-ended narratives.
Of her intent as a photographer, Ess has said, "In a way I try to photograph what cannot be photographed."
She has received grants from LINE, Creative Artists Public Service Program, and Kitchen Media, and fellowships from Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts (photography).
She teaches photography at Bard College since 1997.
Ess has performed and recorded post-punk music with bands since 1978, including The Static, Disband and Y Pants. She often performed at art galleries, at the Mudd Club and at Tier 3. Ess remained musically active throughout the 1980s, contributing tracks to Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine and collaborating with Peggy Ahwesh on 2001's Radio Guitar for the Ecstatic Peace! label.
Editorial work: Just Another Asshole
Just Another Asshole was a no wave mixed media publication project launched from the Lower East Side of Manhattan from 1978 to 1987. Barbara Ess organized and edited seven issues of Just Another Asshole, which formed thanks to an open, collaborative submission process. Issues 3 and 4 were co-edited by Jane M. Sherry and issues 5 through 7 were co-edited by Glenn Branca. Issue formats include: zine, LP record, large format tabloid, magazine, exhibition catalog, and paperback book.
- I am Not This Body: The Pinhole Photographs of Barbara Ess by Guy Armstrong, Michael Cunningham, Thurston Moore and Barbara Ess (June 15, 2005)
- no title 1989 Barbara Ess
- I am Not This Body: The Pinhole Photographs of Barbara Ess by Guy Armstrong, Michael Cunningham, Thurston Moore and Barbara Ess (Jun 15, 2005)
- Andrea Karnes,"Barbara Ess," Camera Austria 27 (October 1988): 17
- Gretchen L. Wagner (2010). Butler, Cornelia; Schwartz, Alexandra, eds. Modern women : women artists at the Museum of Modern Art. New York: Museum of Modern Art. pp. 448–454. ISBN 9780870707711.
- Allen, Gwen (2011). Artists' magazines : an alternative space for art. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. p. 269. ISBN 9780262015196.