The secret art of the family photo

Years ago, when I was working as a photographer and mainly doing portraits, a graceful and lively Virginian named Sally commissioned a portrait of herself, her three beautiful adult daughters and her new son-in-law, a pleasant young businessman named Ted. When we met for our session, the weather was gloomy and the atmosphere in the room was subdued. Ted stood in the middle, flanked by his new wife and mother-in-law, smiling confidently. But then Leslie, the sardonic second daughter, noted that the arrangement was wrong: What if Louise and Ted divorced? Shouldn’t he stand to the side, in case he needs to be airbrushed? The ladies had fun and the mood improved. Leslie riffed on the vagaries of her own relationships, and the subject turned to the sisters’ former lovers and who among these rejected men was or wasn’t worthy of a portrait. Soon they were imagining all the things Ted could do to get him kicked off the pavement. You know how it is when everyone can’t stop laughing.

Ted laughed valiantly with them for a while, but the more scenarios they came up with for his future departure, the less sincere his smile became. On my contact sheets, successive frames revealed the progression. Eventually, the women actually put Ted on the back and side; in the last shot of the session, they are smiling wildly, their faces red, their eyes wide and sparkling, as he stands to the side, looking dejected. Remembering that portrait session still makes me laugh today. (I’m happy to report that the marriage has lasted; the couple now have grandchildren and Ted is still “in the picture.”)

Portraits of more than one person imply relationships, and so the meaning of our family photos changes as families age, change, and regenerate. Recently, I came across a portrait of one of my cousins, made when she was young. It was taken a long time ago, in a house by the lake that belonged to our family for a century but no longer does. A much-loved but long-dead dog sits at her feet. Kneeling beside the couple, however, is her ex-husband and as a result my cousin hasn’t used or shared the photo in years. But she’s a huge fan of singer Barry Manilow, and I’m good at Photoshop. So I found a photo of young Manilow, in which the lighting matched that of the portrait, and I grafted his face onto that of the ex-husband. My cousin loved it and shared it with everyone she knew. Problem solved.

The practice of family photography is vast and sprawling, and there is no one way to approach any aspect of it. I’ve worked in photography in various capacities for four decades, interacting with thousands of photographers, of all skill levels, but I’m always amazed at how people find inventive ways to create something original and personal. Creating a comprehensive record of a family’s life is a challenge in itself – it’s an expansive, ambitious and multi-faceted documentary project – and yet there are always new ways to meet these challenges.

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