Tuesday, May 5, 2009

All in the family

Sleeping in, Rockridge, December 2008.

We call them "Kodak moments," those milestones in family life that demand to be recorded in pictures. The slogan is also a tribute to George Eastman, the man whose invention of the Kodak camera in 1888 brought photography out of the professional studio and into the eager hands of the public-at-large. Nowadays, a person simply has to reach for a cell phone to snap a picture. For better or worse, we are all photographers now, and nowhere will we find more trusting and accessible subjects than our own families.

Many photographers have found muses for their art within their own families; some of them in their wives and lovers. To name just a few: Eleanor to Harry Callahan, Georgia O'Keefe to Alfred Stieglitz, Charis to Edward Weston, Lella to Édouard Boubat. A beautiful woman named Yoko was the young bride and muse of Noboyushi Araki, Japan's most celebrated and prolific photographer. In his photo diary Sentimental Journey, the earliest of more than 300 books, Araki documented the intimate details of his honeymoon with Yoko, a journey that took a tragic turn when Yoko became gravely ill and died. This tragedy, the sexually charged journey into death, will remain with Araki for always and will be recurring themes in his work.

VIDEO: Araki on "Sentimental Journey"

The close ties that bind family members translate with ease into playful depictions of family life. Children and babies naturally play prominent roles in pictures just as they do in daily life. In John Willis' almost abstract portrait, we know his baby is a boy. Nicholas Devore's portrait of Niki, a hilarious meditation on genetics, is one of my favorite pictures of all time. The symbol of home casts a long shadow over Abelardo Morell's sleeping children. The daughters of Harry Gruyaert prove that they are truly a photographer's spawn as they carry on without a trace of self-consciousness, oblivious to dad's ever present camera. Silvan Lewin's classic family group portrait tips its hat to Diego Velasquez' painting, Las Meninas. In Anne Testut's beautifully choreographed bedroom tableau, even the family dog has entered the act.

The concept of family is so powerful that even though it is devoid of people, a still lif
e of dirty plates and a half-empty casserole of fish stew (Mannfred Willman) suggests the boisterous presence of a family feasting.

Aging and mortality are equally common themes in family photographs. Sylvia Plachy's grandparents are captured in a bubbly, childlike moment, but many famous photographers have documented their loved ones in decline. In "The Machine," fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti photographed his brother's struggle with a blood ailment that ultimately claimed his young life. Annie Leibovitz took an intimate and unflinching look at her partner, writer Susan Sontag, as she battled cancer, a fight that she ultimately lost in 2004. After the Bath is part of a series of photographs by Jill Lynworth chronicling the last six months of her brother's life with cancer and its effects on her family.

Sometimes photographs are portents. In 1984 Doug DuBois took a picture of his father in the train station; less than a year later his father "walked between two cars of the moving train and was found six hours later lying between the east and westbound tracks."

Finally, death itself. In "Death of my Father," photojournalist Peter Martens takes a decidedly detached look at the lifeless body of his father as he lays at the foot of the stairwell.

Silvan Lewin, Portrait, 1993.
Anne Testut, Le Lit (The Bed), 1985.
Abelardo Morell, Laura and Brady in the shadow of our house, 1994.
Nicholas Devore III, Where Niki Got his Red Hair, 1986.
Harry Gruyaert, Saskia and Marieke, Malaucene, 1999.
Noboyushi Araki, From Sentimental Journey, 1971.
Manfred Willmann, Fish Soup, 1981.
John Willis, Mother and Child= 1, 1985.
Sylvia Plachy, Grandma and Grandpa, 1979.
Peter Martens, Death of my Father, 1986.
Jill Lynnworth, After the Bath, 1987.
Doug DuBois, My Father, Train Station, 1984.


  1. You have shared an amazing selection of photographs - many are new to me and I thank you! The intimacy of them is what's so gripping for me. Makes me want to take more emotional risks with my own photos.

    I want to offer Sally Mann's name as one for this list - another photographer whose work is sometimes shockingly intimate.

  2. your essays belie the heart and eyes of a true critic whose work is first to love its subject and then, as if this were not enough, to excruciatingly decode the wisdom (or folly) of loving so.