The Family Matters exhibition is now up for viewing at PPG through August 21. A wander through the gallery in addition to a perusal of the Online Annex really gets the brain moving with regard to this content. Several genres are presented: documentary, conceptual, straight, portraiture, still life, etc., due to brilliant (and tough) decisions by skilled Juror/Curator Ann Jastrab, of Rayko Photo in San Francisco. We learn from this collection that Family may be presented in diverse ways.
Today’s post – the first entry of a two-part stream-of-conscious brainstorm – we concentrate on those images that tell stories using people as subject matter (their stories). Consider the following observations and reflections – and let us know what you’re thinking on these matters of family:
The collection as a whole left me with a funny concern for “displaced persons” (a feeling admittedly quiteopposite the reality of most of the images). Perhaps it’s that we’re viewing people within their own personal contexts, these contexts exposing very personal moments and making vulnerable the environments and relationships which are usually behind lock and key. Behind closed doors, and yet here they are, displaced from the hallways and home offices, scrapbooks and personal archives of the families to which these persons belong. Are they lost? Where are their keepers? Are they being cared for? Like seeing a missing pet poster stapled to a utility pole, there’s a great desire to reunite the parties.
Imagine the oddity of finding one of these images tucked away in your own box of crinkle-cornered, slightly sticky snaps (or digital archives as most have converted to) – you know, that priceless collection visually documenting your entire life and the lives of your relations? This “what-if” scenario is hardly a reality, just as it would be unrealistic to see a photo of an alien family displayed in the homes of non-relations. There are notable exceptions of course – Photographers whose work transcends the stigma, some of which would be classified as Documentary (think National Geographic-type portrayals of distant cultures), or perhaps a collectable by Diane Arbus, Nan Golden, Mary Ellen Mark, or Dorothea Lange.
There is extra risk in offering images of your very own family to a Juror for in-depth examination – we might tend to take the results more personally. And of course you run the risk of exposing a member(s) of your family to public scrutiny – baring their secrets so to speak – which, despite all efforts to obtain consent prior to publishing, will still catch innocent intentions off guard.
The often-Universal themes in images of family are challenged by the fact that the persons representing these
themes are strangers to our own histories. They offer such captivating intimacy, and yet our captivation may feel awkward; it is a type of intimacy an accidental-voyeur might feel.
So, if as a Photographer you’ve braved judgement and you’ve resigned yourself to sharing a genre with limited salability, now what will set your photos apart from the rest? How does one judge a photograph of family anyway? It can’t just be about technical proficiency, or proficiency in portraiture (often qualified by the degree of exposé). It can’t just be any personal moment – it has to be a private moment. It has to leak a slice of life that is as intimate as it is historical, and it must do so with a certain mastery of medium.
- The snapshot, and the family photo, are inextricably linked. There’s no denying it – when we think “family photo” we most often consider two categories. First, a professional portrait often taken in a studio, or perhaps free-range in the trending “documentary style”, and that are sometimes well-captured with appropriate lenses, from creative vantage points, and at the studied right-time (often just one out of 100). Or two, it’s a snapshot, not so brilliantly exposed, not too terribly sharp, sort of unflattering, from slightly awkward angles and capturing slightly awkward emotions (the kind you would normally curb in time to say “cheese!”). So what elevates the snapshot to fine art, and what makes a professional portrait transcend the ever-distancing pose, or the self-conscious smile?
More tomorrow, but in the mean time, feel free to fill us in on your brainstorms…