George Eastman is often credited with making photography an every-persons pastime, with the advent of the Kodak camera; amateurs everywhere became hooked on recording their families. Although taking photographs was an expensive hobby in 1888, it was exciting enough to splurge for the opportunity – the opportunity to document our own lives, record our own histories. Can you imagine, not having a way to do so?
We are dependent on our family photos. So much so that our own memory banks often become re-written by the snapshots of our lives. We end up seeing memories as the resultant stills taken during the original events so that we might even become strangers to the original contexts ourselves. Scientists know the more we relive a memory, the greater it morphs from the original reality – who knows if our photos accelerate this process, or slow it down. In any case, our family photos are invaluable.
This is one reason why when asked that age-old question “What would you grab first in a disaster if your family/pets were already safe?” the answer is most often ‘photos’ or now, ‘hard drives’. The thought of the photographic proof of our own existence and the existence of our family being taken from us…well, just the thought of it is heartbreaking. The loss of such a collection would surely feel like a total loss of self; the resulting threat of imminent amnesia would be unbearable.
Equally interesting is which family photos we take. If one must choose between the professional portrait off the wall where each family member is dressed in their Sunday best and posed in perfect form, or the mildewed box of casual snaps from basement storage, the majority would opt for the smelly snaps. Herein lies the beauty of a juried show on the family genre – in “Family Matters” we’re seeing the best of both getting the intimacy of a snap, and also executed with care, thought and intention. “Family Matters” showcases fine art.
So what separates a snapshot from the fine art? Sometimes we get lucky, and what was honestly a candid likely taken in haste results in a dynamite image. Those are little gifts. Generally speaking however, an award-winning photograph of family, or of one representing family is created out of more than just happenstance. The images chosen are portals into global humanity but that are simultaneously tied to unique and individual lives, and the amateurs of 1888 have had generations to practice the craft.
What was your intent as an image-maker? Do you consider your intent prior to, and during a shoot? Do you evaluate how well that intent was captured in the results? Do you look at your images, and ask yourself whether the emotions, vantage point, framing, included environment, all support what you wanted to communicate in that moment? Is this what makes a family photo fine art – well-executed intent?
Sure, these are universal themes, but just because you too used to sit at the neighborhood bar with your grandfather, or you too had a blow up water slide equally as colorful and large, or a rabbit that hung out in your backyard as a child, or a snarky brother who stole the limelight, doesn’t usually activate feelings of déjà vu for the actual persons in these photos. They could no longer blend into your family album as your family would into theirs.
These people are really quite foreign to us so why do we feel such ties to them? It is our instinct as humans, to be humanists. This is what allows us to feel close to these total strangers. It is a natural empathy for the situations surrounding, and the conditions of their lives.
By default, a family photo is a candid. We all know this. There is no pressure to create a creative masterpiece when we’re photographing family. We’re excused from prerequisites; snapping candids is quite without worry of judgement altogether. The only anxieties in the event are for the poor souls in the photos who you’ve exposed so relentlessly, ruthlessly! Judgements of family photos are generally reserved for the individuals pictured, who might be judging their own selves. So as a Photographer who is taking images of our own families, or those we are close to, we’ve got a good opportunity to capture something real – the sitters are less likely to pose in the same way they would for an outsider.
Even the conceptual photographs, most surely posed whether they have persons pictured in them at all, can be equally revealing. Perhaps out of the context of this exhibition their meanings might be harder to grasp, but in context whole story lines are revealed. We are afforded visual epistles, photo narratives that seem to reveal biographical details one could find in a locked journal, hidden in a box, at the back of a shelf, in a closet of junk through which no one would dare search for such secrets otherwise.
In these images we witness and experience: discomfort, oddities and awkwardness, loss, emptiness, and lonliness, confusion, hierarchies and legacy, respect and honor, challenge and hardship, innocence and naiveté, impatience and defiance, sensuality. And the everyday is elevated to the divine. These are images of strangers, but taken by mothers and fathers, sisters, and sons – we’re viewing through the eyes of kin. It may be difficult to relate to universal themes, when they are pictured so intimately, and yet we feel so close simply for the deeply personal these family matters are steeped in.
What qualities make a family photo qualify as fine art? Do the images in this exhibition feel like fine art to you? Juror Ann Jastrab, and PPG thinks, each holds something special – take the best from your box of sticky snaps and run it through the vision of a dedicated photographer, and you’ve got the results seen in “Family Matters”.