Photographers and Family

May 1st - June 30th

In the next two months, here in the States, we will be observing, celebrating, even ignoring or avoiding, both Mother's Day and Father's Day. Occasions like these often stir up an enormous range of emotions and as a subject, it's one of the most personal. Whatever the circumstances, family is the stage for our earliest lessons on living and surviving in the world.

This is the only photo I have of my grandmother on my father's side. She died when he was four and his father died a few years later, leaving him orphaned at a very early age. Obviously, I never met her, but I often wonder what her life must've been like. She married young, very young, to my grandfather who was 16 years older than her, had six children and died before she was 30. And so, I wonder about her life and sometimes I think that I am carrying a little part of her spirit forward and that she would be happy for me.

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Alberto Mitchel & Nicolasa Millán, family album

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Dolores, Ann & Albert Mitchell, family album

I love old family photos–there's a delightful awkwardness about most of them and that quality of being frozen back in the past. Let's face it, families are a messy business with even the best of them being a bit of a wreck. I think of family as this tight ball of all these entangled strands, filled with bits and pieces of lives and stories - some real...others not so much, because eyewitness accounts can be notoriously faulty. In many cases, with these images there's a sense of the familiar ... even if it's not your story ... there is a sense of recognition, as if it could have come from your own family albums. Probably a big part of our fascination with the British Royals is that recognition as we watch a wacky family drama play out on a global stage.

 

If we have no family of origin, taken either by circumstances or choice, then we make our own family. It's probably a survival instinct in that we're stronger and safer together, but there is also a deep internal need to surround ourselves with kindred spirits - with people who "see" us as we want to be seen, a family of the soul. Lena Dunham recently wrote a interesting article on her quest to find and keep these attachments.

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When I think of family, I think of tribes and a photographer who comes to mind is Catherine Opie, starting first with her own tribe in Being and Having and Portraits,  and then moving on to explore tribes in a larger context with Surfers and High School Football. Another photographer known for her exploration of family is Sally Mann - and while I have mixed feelings about the impact being her subject matter has had on her children, the exploration of their lives in the series Immediate Family is both visually engaging and intimate. In many ways Larry Clark’s Kids and Nan Golden‘s Ballad of Sexual Dependency are families of choice - structures with bonds created out of connection and not blood.

In this showcase, I've chosen five photographers who've used the idea of family to explore their place in the world. Several have worked with their own families - while others have used photography to observe the families of others, or fill the gaps they've experienced in life. We also see the effects of outside forces, both political and economic on the most intimate of experiences. Once again many thanks to Douglas Stockdale, photographer, founder and editor of PhotoBook Journal for curating this set of family-inspired photography books - this time the subject matter really made it a hard choice with so many to choose from.