Much younger versions of Ben and Studio Dog.
I am as guilty as any other photographer of looking mostly at my best work. It's stored in archival museum boxes, trendy and expensive folios and stacks of yellow Kodak and red Agfa printing paper boxes. I can open a box and look at street scenes that were lovingly printed on black and white paper. I can open a filing cabinet and flip through page after page of transparencies, the subjects of which were meticulously lit with expensive lighting systems and captured with precision medium format camera systems. If this is all I ever look at I come away with a very skewed and very elitist understanding of what photography means; what function it ultimately serves hundreds of millions of families. Billions of people.
Everywhere I look in my parent's modest home I see photographs. None of them are landscapes. None of them are particularly artful or academic. There are no blurry street scenes nor are there "compelling" shots of food or really any of the work you would expect to see on Instagram or Flickr.
Instead the photographs behind all kinds of frames create a visual history of my brother, sister and me as we grew up and then there is a newer layer of the images that track grandchildren from infancy through college.
Few of the images were "professionally" done. There is the portrait I paid for on my parents' 50th anniversary which was done by San Antonio photographer, Charles Parish. It's a beautiful image of my folks at the apex of their health and good fortune standing in a local park with each other. I had prints made for my parents as well as me and my siblings. But there is an equally compelling snapshot of them a number of years later, taken in low light after a family dinner at our favorite restaurant, Cappy's. My parents weren't so much posed as they were frozen in their tracks but the image represents the last "marker" of the time before the slow decay from health issues started to surface more obviously. By the time this photo was taken my dad started walking with a cane and my mother started to seem frail.
In their kitchen hangs two different combination frames that each contain about a dozen smaller images of various sizes. A random compiling of images; each from a certain slice of time. One frame includes a shot of my dad in a tie and white shirt at work. A more recent one is of my brother in law holing a book and mugging for the camera. In the center is a snapshot that I think I had taken of my mother's mother (at 95) with my brother's son at toddler age in her lap, in a rocking chair. She's reading him a book with the light coming from one side through a large window.
To the right of that is an image of Belinda as a very young adult with her legs drawn up and her hands wrapped around her knees. My gosh, she seems so young. Over on the right of the frame is a photograph of me, taken from one side, intently focusing a camera with a silver lens on it. My hair is curly and brown.
The images are strewn through the house as if deposited by a neat hurricane. Every bookshelf is covered with images of their grandchildren. Some of the images were taken at school by services like Olan Mills and the others were supplied in an endless series by proud parents with a range of photographic skills. The value of the image always a reflection of the emotion presented and never calculated by the spit and polish of technique. Each antique dresser is covered with images from a different time strata of our collective existence. The tall dresser in the rear bedroom of the house seems to be home to ancient, professionally done, black and white photographs of my grandparents. Perfect poses and exacting and exquisite lighting delivered to quality papers that have already stood the test of time without degradation. 70 to 80 years, in some cases with no ill effects.
While there is a difference in the posed, professional images and the more candid ones the candid ones benefit from having had the operator in the right place at the right time with the right intention.
The perfect inventory in the house is a blend of the two styles. One showing the moment and the action, the other showing a formal perfection of the person being photographed.
Another layer is represented by the books I found in a box. These were little, plastic albums that my wife made for my mother and my wife's mother for the "Mother's Days" from the time of Ben's childhood. Each book contains 50 or more images that were taken of Ben doing activities or being held, or hanging out with family members. Each book covers one year. There were 15 years of them in the carefully stored boxes. I sat down with a few of the books and looked at the 4x6 inch prints in succession. In one Ben plays King Arthur in a school play and those photographs are followed by ones in which Ben is winning a ribbon at a swim meet. These are followed by images of Ben and his entry to the Science Fair. Most of these were taken by me or Ben's mom, Belinda. The images recreate the moments for me that resonate with a certain intensity I did not expect. But certainly relish.
Tomorrow I'll be checking my dad into Memory Care and, with my brother and sister absent, the task falls to me to curate a collection from a houseful of time capsules into a small selection that will fit on the tops of his dresser, end table and bedside table in his new apartment. I'm casting aside my snobbishness about execution in order to be open to trying to understand which moments and expressions will ultimately serve my father's sense of calm and continuity best.
This has been a valuable learning experience for me. I need to learn to cast aside the pursuit of trying to be aesthetically present all the time in my work and leave much more space for happy accidents and testaments to the "here and now." I need to forget the stuffy artifice of finding just the right lens or just the right aperture and instead shoot with a more joyous abandon. I've come to realize that, with family photographs, it's all about the memories that the images convey. They don't stand alone but are forever locked with meaning by the context of our own histories.
I am currently looking for the little album that my mother made in the 1965 when she hired a taxi to take her to an encampment of gypsies miles from Adana, Turkey. She made a few dozen wonderful, color snapshots of the people at the camp with a primitive zone focusing camera and color negative film. They get better every time I look at them...
There is very little drama in my family. My parents come from Pennsylvania stock on both sides. My paternal grandfather was a banker. My maternal grandfather worked in the Pennsylvania court system for 50 years. My parents come from staid and conservative stock. But in the photographs of my family the little eccentricities are in evidence in the photographs of each subsequent generation.
A trip to the family home might bring back a feeling of relevance to many photographers who have grown stale in their work. They might excavate and discover just how essential the emotional content of photographs is to their ultimate success. Not a success of gallery adoration, necessarily, but as a record of the continuous process of existence that is the nature of family.
No "Family of Man" here. Just the shiny bright moments of discovery and happiness evinced in the pride filled collection of visual or metaphoric kisses.