One of my favourite pictures is a black and white photograph by Emmet Gowin that shows two children, a boy and a girl, entwined in short grass. The boy straddles her, but is collapsed forwards so that they are chest to chest and ear to ear. He is topless, wearing only a pair of dark denim shorts. The curve of his neck traces the line of her jaw, while the fingers of her right hand rest lightly on the opposite side of his neck, the index finger on the back of his left ear, the little finger against his shoulder. She is wearing a white hairband and a few strands of dark hair have escaped across her forehead, stopping just short of her closed eyes. Blades of grass stick to his white back and limbs, and also to her thighs and calves. The dark and angular texture of the grass that surrounds them rhymes with his straw like hair, but contrasts with the soft, pale skin of their childish bodies.
I see an almost transcendent peace and abandonment in their repose; from her beatific expression, eyes closed, lips parted; to his surrender to gravity. However, it is the pull between tension and tranquility that elevates this image for me. Below the bliss, there is a sense that this scene is the result of something more dynamic, more aggressive. Their bodies suggest relaxation but also exhaustion, perhaps the result of a ferocious bout? Are they submerged in an embrace or are we looking at the victor pinning the vanquished? Her right hand lies so delicately against his skin, keeping him close; yet literally on the other hand, her left arm is pinned uncomfortably under his body, her left hand awkwardly trying to free itself at his hip. His left hand is balled into a fist, seemingly grasping the grass at her elbow; but is he pushing against the ground to lessen her discomfort at his weight, or is he pulling himself down, the better to hold her in place?
Emmet Gowin, Nancy and Dwayne, Danville, Virginia, 1970
The image faithfully depicts two people from a certain position, through a certain lens, at a certain time, in a certain place, in a certain light, in black and white. However, what interests us is not the accuracy of this two-dimensional representation of a moment from four-dimensional reality, but rather what it means and how it makes us feel. What’s going on? Who are these children? Why do I find it both beautiful and discomforting at the same time? Like all the best photographs, this picture feels like it represents some kind of truth, but it asks more questions than it answers. Photography is unique because it can be simultaneously precise and mysterious.
Photography in general and photographing family in particular escapes the parochial via specificity. Fortunately, photography adheres to the paradox of other observational arts — the closer and more attentive you are to the idiosyncrasies of your subject, the more likely that the work you create will resonate universally. This can take many forms — from the bleak ugliness of Richard Billingham’s Ray’s a Laugh, to the ethereal beauty of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family, via Emmet Gowin’s images of his wife and children.
Photographing family successfully is difficult and rewarding. Difficult, because it’s hard to stay curious and open when engaging with a subject that is so close, so familiar, that we can’t see beyond our narratives, memories and preconceptions. Rewarding, because as we ask pictorial questions — when we look again — we can re-examine what we thought we knew. Also, it rewards in other ways: as a photographer (or writer for that matter) you become a curator of memories for your family. That outfit, his funny expression, her weight on one hip, not the other — all those things that seem banal in the present, increase in resonance with the passing of time and of elders. It’s our duty to be the documentarians and custodians for our families. No picture that you hang in a gallery or put on the cover of a magazine is ever going to be as cherished as that poorly lit snap of your grandparent, now dead, sat reading in their favourite chair, their glasses perched on the tip of their nose, just so.
Families are weird, tender, fucked up, loyal, tight-knit, absent, hurtful, selfish, unconditionally loving, traumatising , restorative, inspirational and irreplaceable.
How will you do yours justice?
“The picture is like a prayer, an offering, and hopefully an opening through which to seek what we don’t know, or already know and should take seriously.” —Emmet Gowin
The Tail End by Tim Urban on Wait but Why
A compelling and frankly, quietly terrifying look at how long you have left. Its power lies in counting your life in terms of remaining events rather than remaining years. This essay caused me to completely re-evaluate how I think about seeing family and how I spend my time.
The ocean is freezing and putting my body into it is a bad life experience, so I tend to limit myself to around one ocean swim a year. So as weird as it seems, I might only go in the ocean 60 more times
Emmet Gowin interviewed by John Paul Caponigro
To be in the presence of our own first hand experience, is probably the only way we can save ourselves. See what I was saying about Robert Frank; what I had to give up was being answerable to Frank. What I had to become was answerable to what was happening in front of me and how I felt about it. That’s what you have to give up, the authority of an answer and replace it with the authenticity of the experience.
Ella Risbridger on food I haven’t read all of this yet but it’s worth it for the Ella Risberger section alone.
I have cooked my way through so many crises in my life: mental illness, family estrangement, a suicide attempt, the slow death of my partner and the complex grief that followed. I have found cooking to be a joy and a balm: a creative and practical distraction from pain, a way to love and be loved, a daily practice – like running or meditation – to centre a life around. It has been my reason, really, for living.
Two photographers that I am very late to the party on:
Evelyn Hoffer — a German-American photographer shooting NYC in the 1960s and 70s. Lovely colour portraits of the city and it’s inhabitants. I aspire to be able to shoot street portraits this good.
Jason Eskenazi — Wonderland — lyrical and strange photography from across the former Soviet Union. An incredible series that ties together work from across time and place, bound together by a singular monochrome vision. I would love to get hold of this, Black Garden and Departure Lounge to complete the trilogy.
I’ve been in a bit of a dystopian future electronica mood this week so I’m suggesting a few things in a Blade Runner-esque sonic space.
新しい日の誕生 by 2184
Is it ambient dreampunk or is it cyberfuture ambient vaporwave? I couldn’t tell you. According to Rolling Stone it’s “a late night cruise through the cyber-future dream highway.”
A I A: Alien Observer by Grouper
I don’t want to be That Guy, but this is haunting wide open space electronica laced with faraway voices and pretty looping melodies.
Two more literal Blade Runner references that take the ‘Tears in the Rain’ monologue in very different directions:
Grumbling Fur — The Ballad of Roy Batty
Dreamy and romantic
Zomby — Tears in the Rain
Heavy as fuck
Hat Tip to Duncan Geere for the ‘Tears in the Rain’ reminder in a recent issue of his excellent newsletter