The Secret Art of the Family Photo

Years ago, when I worked as a photographer doing mostly portraits, a gracious and vivacious 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 dull, and the mood 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 middle daughter, noted that the arrangement was wrong: What if Louise and Ted divorced? Shouldn’t he stand to the side, in case he needed to be airbrushed out? The ladies were amused, and the mood brightened. Leslie riffed on the vagaries of her own relationships, and the topic turned to the sisters’ former paramours and who among those rejected men was or was not portrait-worthy. Soon, they were imagining all the things Ted might do that could get him kicked to the curb. You know what it’s like, when everybody just can’t stop laughing.

Ted laughed manfully along with them for a while—but the more scenarios they invented 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 in the back and to the side; in the last shot of the session, they are grinning hugely, faces flushed, eyes wide and sparkling, while he stands apart, looking crestfallen. Recalling that portrait session makes me laugh to this day. (I’m happy to report that the marriage endured; the couple now have grandchildren, and Ted is still “in the picture.”)

Portraits of more than one person imply relationships, and so the meanings of our family pictures shift 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 long ago, at a lake house that was in our family for a century but isn’t anymore. A much beloved but long-gone dog is sitting at her feet. Kneeling by the pair, however, is her ex-husband, and, as a result, my cousin hasn’t used or shared the picture in years. But she’s a diehard fan of the singer Barry Manilow, and I’m proficient in Photoshop. So I found a picture of Manilow as a young man, in which the lighting matched the portrait’s, and grafted his face over the ex-husband’s. My cousin loved it, and shared it with everyone she knew. Problem solved.

The practice of family photography is vast and sprawling, and there’s no one way to approach any aspect of it. I’ve worked in photography in many different capacities for four decades, interacting with many thousands of photographers, of all skill levels, but I’m still surprised by how people find inventive ways of making something original and personal. Creating a comprehensive record of a family’s life is inherently challenging—it’s an extended, ambitious, and multifaceted documentary project—and yet there are always new routes to meeting those challenges.

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