Every photographer parent that I know has what to the non-parenting world seems like a self-indulgent family album project. Every. one. of. them. Myself. included. Some have several. Making photographs of the family is part of the experience of getting through life. We use the camera to illustrate the mundane, the banal, and the exciting moments. Milestones and events punctuate the family album cum harddrive and our compunction to photograph our partners and our children is part of this process of archiving time as it passes by all too quickly as a parent. In regards to parenting, I once read the following…”The days are long and the years are short”. Whoever came up with that line should get some sort of award. “100 years just isn’t enough time…” Walter Schreifels wrote that.
In thinking about our ritual use of the camera and our need to document our families and intimate lives, it is not hard to suggest that as photography people, these types of images are held at some distance from what we perceive as our “professional” work. The same level of detail and attention is considered when making photographs of our family as in our professional practice and yet, we opt to marginalize the family photograph as the reserve of the personal and of the non-practice/non-professional order. We want great pictures of our loved ones, and yet, we struggle to mandate these images into our professional career, a division looms, an imaginary wall is built in which these nearly sainted images are set to the side, almost hidden from a public who judges us for our “real” work.
What is real work then? Is it the “serious” bodies of work that we believe legitimizes our practice? Is the work that gains traction in the eyes of the community more significant or worth more in the tradition of photography because it is about an idea that is graced by intellectualism as opposed to that of the familiar or personal? Does making exceptional images of our family visible negate our working legacy simply because they are of a personal order? Are we conditioned, at a personal loss, to believe our non-family photographs are somehow more relevant to the outside world than our own most intimate photographs of the people that know us best? Are family photographs not more exceedingly universal to somebody than a body of work that espouses the medium-specificity of our preferred art form? Is the basis of art an idea or is it a shared experience? Are we artists or humans first?
In thinking about the use of family photographs, it would be remiss of me not to admit that a great number of exceptional works have been made regarding the family. Judith Black, Jo Ann Walters, Tina Barney, Sally Mann, Deanna Dikeman, Nan Goldin all have significant bodies of work devoted to family. It is a topic that has concerned photographers since the 19th Century. Julia Margaret Cameron is another prime example. What of the men then? Where are the fathers? Their images or lack thereof speak of absenteeism. While many images of female muses and wives perforate the medium’s history, there is very little evidence of a focus or at least a publication from men regarding their families. Is it due to the vulnerability of the artist? Is it about protecting the family by keeping their image from the public?
Robert Frank certainly made intimate portraits of his family and children, their stories difficult, the weight of the work and the fate of the Frank children somehow a Faustian bargain for the impact of The Americans. What other men have been so bold? Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home is another example, though it is bereft of his own family and focuses instead, like Deanna Dikeman’s work, on the artist’s parents. I can think of W. Eugene Smith’s photograph The Walk to Paradise Garden from 1946 of an excellent single, if saccharine study, but the list of projects devoted to the topic is very short in scope.
Lee Friedlander and Harry Callahan were not short on pictures of their wives and children, but there was not a great body of work sculpted from these images either apart from images of the missus in both Maria and Eleanor respectively. This is worth mentioning that though there are many images of family life in many male artists’ work, there is little emphasis on their inclusion into single studies when viewed in opposition to the plethora of family photographic works pursued by women. And, I am sure that I am missing some examples, but overall, the medium lacks serious investigation by men to document or certainly publish images of their interior family life.
We cannot possibly believe the reserve of the family as a subject is to be left as engendered and yet, I struggle to find as many examples to bridge the divide between mother and father, husband and wife, which is alarming in retrospect. Even in considering Kitty Stieglitz, whose many images show an early use of family life from a male perspective in the historical canon, I struggle to address or commit the images to the topic, as in retrospect, Kitty was more the muse of Edward Steichen than Stieglitz himself. We certainly cannot forgo some further mention to Steichen and his Family of Man project, no matter how saccharine (again) or unloved (Me, I do not love it. I loathe it.) the attempt. This venal project sought to exhibit, besides American propaganda, a human universe in which family played a pivotal part of the photographic record from birth to death curated by a father. In the exhibition and catalog, concerns regarding family are present but are also somewhat spirited away into the de-personalized agenda of Steichen in his post-war years of intellectual and artistic decline. There, family exists, but again in piecemeal presentation from many singular artists.
This brings us to the reasons that Christopher Anderson’s books on his family are important. Son and Pia, both published by Stanley/Barker are attempts to rectify this absence of male perspective in family photographs. Son is the latest offering by the artist and is a re-working and update of Anderson’s earlier book of the same name from 2013. Atlas, Anderson’s son, now a pre-teen, is the main focus of the work with the addition of some incredible images of his mother Marion, whom Anderson has photographed in front of a New York window that reminds the viewer of Helmet Newton’s New York studies of women in front of similar windows albeit with less of Newton’s emphasis on a vertiginous drop. On a similar historical note, there is another photograph of Marion that reminds me of Ellen Auerbach’s photographs of a woman at her (nearly orientalist) bath from 1949, which no doubt bears some legacy to Degas’s studies of similar subject matter as well as Ingres.
In terms of Atlas himself, it is both beautiful and painful to see the boy in front of Anderson’s lens. The part that is beautiful is easy enough to explain. Atlas is documented at play, in duress, and in the family dwelling-all very familiar stages and moments that any parent can relate to, thus adding the universal appeal to the images. There is also the profound sense of Anderson’s orange palette that softens everything into a Halcyon understanding between the image of Atlas and Anderson’s desire to capture his son in a sympathetic light presented by the aura of golden hour hues. This is where you see Anderson using his technical skill to apply his “work” mode to his family. His growth as an artist is also measured incrementally in these photographs similarly.
And to the painful values, there is something fleeting and cinematic about the studies of Atlas in this light. And similar to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, we see Atlas grow throughout Anderson’s pictures into an age approaching personal autonomy. Our job as parents is to get these ducklings to an age in which they can de-nest and de-camp from us, and Atlas is on track to that position. Anderson realizes just how fleeting it all is and how important the gift of having children is for any parent, but also how inspiring it is for an artist.
Motherhood is a topic rife in the making of art, but it is rare to see an artist dwell on the changes that manifest in an individual in becoming a father. This position, which Anderson expertly attenuates in his writing, is painful in as much as that one can sympathize with the beauty of watching Atlas grow and become. An occasional photograph of the artist’s father finds its way into the work presenting an inter-generational study of time’s passing through the men of the family. This is where the pain lies, in the bittersweet understanding of our status as ephemeral beings. The beauty of life is solidified not in our accomplishments, but in our relationship to blood and time.
The book is another brilliant contribution by Anderson to the medium and finally acknowledges that as fathers, we can make work and exhibit work regarding our family lives. We can be intimate and express vulnerability while still creating an excellent body of work full of visual pleasure. It shows the illuminating career of Anderson as he ascends into his most noteworthy form as an artist with correlation to the other concerns of his non-family works and in doing so by example, gives the right to artist fathers to be less absent from the picture and to embrace family and express these very important gifts of life through their work. I remain a fan of Anderson, his open honesty to his interior world coupled with the continual motivation to find art, love, and care in his daily life are inspirational. It is another win for Stanley/Barker and Anderson and its motivations as a book should help to counter-balance the absenteeism that fathers are accused of in making work about family. This edition is sold out, but the second printing will be available soon. Highly Recommended.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Stanley/Barker.)