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Book of the Week: ‘Families are containers for loyalty and cruelty’

Mary Macpherson reviews a massive new photography book devoted to the subject of loving, hating, joyous, miserable families.  

Take a deep breath before diving into this book. The bitter-sweet experience of family life is laid bare in over 300 photographs across nearly 40 portfolios. The trumpeting of quantity is part of the Photography Now series marketing shtick. While abundance is welcome, there’s a packed to gunwales aesthetic that swamps the design, the columns of type and the overall experience of looking through the work.

But it’s worth persevering. After the first round of reading and looking, I found it best to ignore the explanations preceding each photographer’s work – like skipping the bossy wall labels in an exhibition. Instead, I looked intently at the actual photographs that mine the bedrock of family drama.

Goh family (Bellevue, Bedok) from the series 'Being Together', John Clang. Courtesy of John Clang

Goh family (Bellevue, Bedok) from the series ‘Being Together’, John Clang. Courtesy of John Clang

The book is divided into two sections. The first is of photographers documenting their own families while the second features people photographing other people’s families. Perhaps because of a preference for work with emotional and psychological undertow, I found more to like in the first section where photographers are both participant and observer.

Among the work that stood out from the warm bath of documentary humanism, or the overly constructed portrait, was Alain Laboile’s portfolio of joyous rural childhood in southwest France. The black and white photographs feature his children in an explosive riot of childhood play. The work brought to mind his famous French predecessor Jacques Lartigue and just how merry the combination of children and pets can be. It was also refreshing in a photographic world dominated by American urban imagery to see classy work that reflected another part of the world.

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If the photographs started on a high beat, we were quickly reminded of difficulty with Timothy Archibald’s collaboration with his autistic son on a series that dramatised the pared-down view of a child with this condition. The photographic concepts, created by son and father, feature the pale-skinned child peering into a red funnel or curled into a transparent box.

The cool tone of images spoke of isolation and solitude. Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus’s self-portraits also used a spare aesthetic to make us feel the anguish of infertility throughout a series of failed IVF treatments.

I would like to see the exhibition prints of Carolle Benitah’s work, which feature her embroidery of her family photographs. Threads of black, red and gold, stitched across significant details of the photographs, packed an emotional punch. The embroidery of childrens’ teeth or hands, or the stitching of spaces where heads once were in a family line-up, was spooky and compelling. Australian photographer Trent Parke’s The Christmas Tree Bucket series, where often masked participants played or sat around during festivities, also brought a Diane Arbus spirit to an Aussie suburban Christmas.

The book has two essays. Is my family normal? by Sophie Haworth, digs into the idea of family photographs as propaganda for the message – “Look at us! So loving, so happy, so normal!” – but, as she points out: “Families are containers for both loyalty and cruelty, altruism and selfishness: in short for all best and worst characteristics.” The selection of photographers for the book, she says, accepted that “families are contradictory beasts, rarely comprehensible to their own members, let alone outsiders.”

Alain Laboile. Courtesy of Alain Laboile

Alain Laboile. Courtesy of Alain Laboile

Stephen McLaren’s essay Thanks for sharing! started with the movie Bladerunner to examine how family images have migrated to social media and the Internet. The photograph by Patrick Witty of a refugee newly landed in Lebos taking a selfie, presumably to demonstrate his arrival to loved ones back home, has remained in my mind as a counter to the global media portrayal of desperate migrants.

There was work I felt was missing from the book, such as UK photographer Lydia Goldblatt’s recent luminous portrayal of her aging parents, published in her book Still Here, or the late Larry Sultan’s seminal work, Pictures from Home, with its great scratchy dialogue with his father.

Compilation books aren’t easy to get right – taking tiny extracts from deeply worked series, and packing them together under a theme – they’re like short stories reduced to five paragraphs each, to convey the essence of what that writer might be like (except I don’t think writers would accept that treatment).

But this book does have a good selection of interesting work, and enough darkness mixed with the light, to make it interesting. Just take it slowly through all those portfolios. Recommended.


Family Photography Now (Thames and Hudson, $70) edited by Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren

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