“The historical road of photography is paved with books and bodies of work about family. It is a natural resource for making work”
The historical road of photography is paved with books and bodies of work about family. It is a natural resource for making work. Emmet Gowin, Sally Mann, Judith Black and many others have considered their family as an altar at which to worship their art. As Mann has noted, the family is immediate. When you become a parent, it is often the closest resource that is at your disposal and when you care deeply for another person, the images produced often emit this state of emotional governance. People can read the difference between a subject at arm’s length and a subject in which time, toil and emotional value are obvious. Think of Callaghan’s portraits of Eleanor or Stieglitz’s intimate images of O’Keefe. The images become a collaboration, the power within the image is often balanced and distributed with a sense of equality of terms. That does not occlude images that are vulnerable. You can make images of people in a vulnerable moment, whether they trust you or not will be clear in the image. You can find telltale signs of the distance or proximity between author and subject in an image.
Within the context of photographing one’s own, an artist can suspect there to be some universal applause to their efforts from people who have their own vested interest in family and intimate relationships. I often look at work which incorporates family as a centrifugal discussion and feel an extension of understanding. I see the struggle, the unkept rooms, dishes or the scraped knees of children, the cardboard box forts and the family environment with a nod of not only approval, but also empathy at the long hours, tired mornings, excited birthday parties and the visual remnants of all those meals cobbled together in a body of work. In effect, I feel that I understand that world, which is not only due to my own family, but also growing up in a relatively stable environment with love and protection with a resulting lifetime devoted to the arts.
Within the semi-universal outlook of family, I also have felt in the past that there is something self-indulgent in creating a body of work about one’s own family that we expect to pander towards other viewers. What separates the private from the public is a big question, but larger questions loom about future relationships and consent between subject and author and to what right we assume to make images of for example, our children who are not of an age in which consent can be legitimized. I still take “arty” photographs of my kid, but have made the conscious effort to keep those images out of the public sphere until he is at an age in which he can make his own mistakes with his image. I do not regard his will or his image mine. That being said, I do feel the pull to put his image in books, even in semi-obfuscation. I do feel a small bit of guilt with the idea. So, what do we do with books or bodies of work in which children and the particulars of our intimate world become “work” to be accoladed, reviewed or put into the public sphere? Is it all innocuous? Am I over-emphasizing the problematic potential of this claim? Likely, yes. Is there a conversation to be had about the “family photobook” and its ethics. Also, Likely yes.
“I feel it is the right of the parents of children to make these decisions, though I feel it is fair to ask what the outcomes could be while making your private life and the life of others you share it with your work and therefore public. In the case of Lenz, the images that he has made of his family, rather predominantly his children are quite sweet”
This is only one of my critical questions when reviewing Jesse Lenz’s first book The Locusts (Charcoal Press, 2020) and in complete fairness, it is not my overriding concern. I feel it is the right of the parents of children to make these decisions, though I feel it is fair to ask what the outcomes could be while making your private life and the life of others you share it with your work and therefore public. In the case of Lenz, the images that he has made of his family, rather predominantly his children are quite sweet. They exhibit a quality of playful curiosity for the world and the homestead. In many ways, I envy Jesse and his brood, of which I believe there are five. They live in a rural climate (Ohio) where they have time and space to investigate life and death through the natural world, which in rural climes is an everyday occurrence. The kids are able to stretch out their legs and imaginations on a large and beautiful plot of land and it reminds me why growing up outside of cities and in the Midwest in particular has its benefits for the health of children.
Throughout the book, the kids play, frolic and collect bumps and bruises along with bee stings. There is an almost equal attention placed on the children as there is their environment and Lenz’s camera has been encouraged to make softly poetic images of dew-dipped spiderwebs and birds in flight over the muddy road leading to the house. He, like many artists employing the topic of family is clearly endeavored to observation and the wistful moments of capture as the children play. I believe some of the strongest images in the book are of the land itself. There are sweeping images of the home front, the work and toil that occurs there-notably the combine passing the fields and an alluring separation of a bull. A number of images convey a moody atmosphere of clouds and inclimate weather, but it only adds to the everyday value of the images. Lenz is a successful image-maker. He is self-proclaimed as self-taught and depending on your point of view suggests either a natural talent or a proclivity towards an excess of unnecessary terms. None the less, the images are solid, the sentiment shared and the book itself is a beautifully-produced first attempt.
I have one or two constructive criticisms of the work in the book- namely that it is a bit repetitive with a number of the nature images adding little value after the first handful and though a number of the studies of the kids are top shelf, there are a number in which there isn’t much added to the work for the reader and in some ways either betray Lenz’s complete talents or are relegated to the safety of his “self-taught” choices. I am sure for Lenz himself, the distance between making the images, the love for his family and the final book were possibly at odds with how it would be viewed in the hands of people who do not know his family. In short, it could use a tighter edit with emphasis of considering viewership. The production is beautiful, the cover very compelling, but overall, there are too many images that are bound to repetition. On the topic of nature, there is also quite a bit of death. I am not bothered by this and I do believe in a sense it teaches value to the children, but there are a few images, such as embryos pulled from the gut of roadkill that I find excessive and erring a bit to the needlessly “edgy”. It feels contrapuntal to the images in which death is a metaphor or a stand-in effigy at the least. I would suggest that a stronger edit and perhaps a less looming tome would have made the work stand out even more. In a book of this size where repetition is king it is hard not to ask oneself-“Does it need to be in this format” “Does this feel rushed”.
I have professional criticism of the book that is about the world of presentation of the photobook and its marketing to make and the final and longer criticism comes in an oblique form and does not reflect the value of the book itself. I have saluted Lenz’s talent, made constructive criticsm of its edit, but I do want to discuss a problematic feature of this title. So, if you only want the review of the work itself, stop now…I have deliberated about whether to include this or not, but I would somehow feel remiss if I did not add this cautionary tale.
I was sent an early pdf of the book and very much enjoyed what I saw and have sice gotten a review copy from Jesse in the physical to reflect on. In between when the release was ready to drop, I was strafed with a list of quotes from eminent artists about the book itself on social media and in press releases via email, which I read. It is not standard in press releases to receive one pull quote from another highly-valued artist in our field, let alone a string of them over every press release between several ventures such as the publishing house, the book of the month club, etc. This is indeed something you see in the publishing industry, but mostly as it relates to non-art books. I think having a NY Times editor rave about the new Don Delillo book makes sense as does having someone like Zadie Smith talk about the unearthed collected short stories of David Foster Wallace. In photography, these quotes read as overly pining and it distorts my efforts to being even more critical of why I am reading bit praise. In essence, it creates the opposite of the desired effect.
“It is not standard in press releases to receive one pull quote from another highly-valued artist in our field, let alone a string of them over every press release between several ventures”
As a reviewer or critical mind, it creates skepticism to see these platitudes and they have overshadowed my commitment to examining the project without some bias. It is a lesson for others reading this and not meant to insult Lenz’s talent which I have already commented upon. If you want to be noticed, make great work, do not rely on your associations to carry the field’s interest. If you operate another venture like Charcoal Book Club or the Chico Hot Springs workshops where you sponsor a number of the same artists that give you a pull quote, please remember that this is a oddly small community and it will be noticed and what could be construed or misconstrued as awkward nepotism does limit the shine of your work. As we all grind and try to “make it”, it is fully understood why this method was used by the artist, but I have to pronounce its overkill and the bona fides methodology enlisted unnatural to the medium and my reception of the full project. And to be clear we are all, myself included, up for this criticism when we wear different hats within the medium. I would suggest some minor amount of tact moving forward.
In conclusion, I believe that Lenz’s work shows significant promise. I am reminded of Raymond Meeks, Emmet Gowin, Andrea Modica, Sally Mann and in one shot, Helen Levitt-a number of emulations shine through the book convincingly enough to incorporate a budding and singular vision emerging. Being self-taught in the medium of photography does not distinguish your efforts any more than attending Yale as the medium and its technical function are one of the few used by most people with regularity who also did not take up school. If you make great work, it will be noticed without the extra pining verbiage, including pull cloying quotes enlisted to sell copy. I believe Lenz will go on to make even better work in the future and I think half of this book is pretty exceptional. The design is strong and the future bright if one desires to heed anything of the aforementioned, lest one be held to their associations under scrutiny.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images © Jesse Lenz)