For years my father in law was an avid collector and user of cameras. Not too many months ago, though, he turned to me and said that he was putting them away. “You’re now the family photographer.”
My nieces and nephews see me with a camera strapped around my neck so often that they call me “Uncle Cameraman.” That doesn’t mean I work as a professional photographer, of course. Just that they know I am an avid gatherer of images.
You do not see my photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum, the International Center of Photography or any gallery in Chelsea. But, in a sense, they are worth more. They are, after all, irreplaceable. That is true of most family photos. From time to time, people show me photographs of their grandchildren, their children or their nephews and nieces. Often the eyes of their relatives are as red as if they were werewolf orbs. (Avoid those red eyes!) In other photos, the subjects appear stunned by strobe lights as bright as any that Weegee might have used to steal his mugshots. Still, these friends clutch these sometimes dog-eared photos to themselves as if they were from the Louvre itself. Now I am a father too, and I justify each new camera by telling myself that I am using it to document the growth of my son.
When we see the images of photographers we admire, we sometimes forget that these master artists had families too. For instance, when we see Ansel Adams’ Yosemite, we might forget that there was also a Virginia Best. Other photographers make the familial connections more obvious. Alfred Stieglitz took nude photos of his wife Georgia O’Keefe. Edward Weston took photos of his lover Tina Modotti. You see, family members make the easiest of subjects. Either they are the most agreeable or most captive. Eugene Smith trained himself as a young boy by snapping photos of his mother. Andre Kertesz made his brother Jeno wear wings.
What makes photography so difficult is that, like writing, it is one of the most accessible of arts, and yet also one of the toughest to master. Nearly everyone takes family photos, but only a few do so at the level of a master artist.
When you think of those “family photos” that rise to the level of high art, you think of the lush black and white of Sally Mann’s large format prints, of course. Because she took her photos of her children over many years, there is a wonderful naturalness to the images. They go beyond simple acceptance of the camera─as, for instance, when a photographer spends so much time with her subject that the subject eventually forgets her presence. In Mann’s case, though, she actively sought the interaction of her children. She documented instances from their lives, but often Jessie, Emmett and Virginia were caught looking straight into Mann’s cameras, engaging the lenses and us. The photos stirred controversy because they captured the children in their most natural state, even frequently ‘au naturel,’ but disapproving eyes entirely missed the point of the photos. The photos captured a mother’s wonderment at the beauty of her children.