My family and I moved to rural Virginia about three years ago. As you can guess by the title, we got about 5 acres of land. A bit of the land was taken by the power company I believe, and other parts of the land were given to others by the the previous owners. So - we have about five acres. We wish we had more, but that’s what we have.
When we first moved in, I found the new land intriguing, and felt I could make good photographs. However, as I have settled in, photographing what is right out in my backyard has been quite difficult. What is out in the back yard are things close to me: family, pets, memories - past, present, and future.
Making photographs of what is near is hard. I’ve seen the same landscape, the same trees thousands of times, and I become self-conscious about what to photograph. Should I try this angle, move around here, try in color, or ask family members to move over or lower? The process can just become too forced. There is less freedom or less discovery photographing where I live. At the same time, I know some memory and/or transformation is there, but perhaps I just do not want to discover it because it may disconnect me to my home and to my family. Can my home and family become art?
I have wondered how Shoji Ueda got all of his photos from so close to where he lived. He took the majority of his photos in the Tottori Sand Dunes. Think of the great movies with sand in the backdrop: Lawrence of Arabia, Greed, Woman in the Dunes, and Fata Morgana, to name a few. (Ueda’s photographs most likely influenced the opening cinematography in Teshigahari’s 1964 film Woman in the Dunes. However, after that, the film reflects a sense of no escape, the exact opposite of Ueda’s photographs on the dunes.)
Perhaps it was the magic of the dunes that helped Ueda carve out his photos. Perhaps I need to find the magic of the forest.
Although Ueda’s photographs are great, I wonder how his family felt while taking part in creating them. Were they willing participants? Was it easy for him to direct them? Did it ever get stressful or feel like a chore rather than family time? It is reported that he had a happy family life - so maybe all was well. However, all we have are the photos, so it is hard to know for sure how effortless or effortful Ueda’s process was.
In addition to Ueda, photographers such as William Eggleston, Susan Worsham, George Tice, and Paul Thulin-Jiminez all have amazing photographs of their family and of their immediate surroundings. In general, most people think of Eggleston as a “colorist”. After all, one of his most famous photographs is of a blood-red ceiling. However, his family portraits and still lifes are calculated and free all at once. In his book Democratic Camera: Photographs and Videos, 1961-2008, there are quite a few Sumner, Mississippi photographs of his family, and, what I believe to be, his house. There are photos of family members, set dinner tables, and flowers and photographic prints on a desk. Although these photographs seem very simple on the surface, it is certainly a challenge to recreate the mood, tone, and composition Eggleston produces. In bittersweet on bostwick lane, Susan Worsham captures the environs and memories of her childhood home. Worsham’s use of light, color film, and black and white film all evoke, to me at least, a sullen stillness, while at the same, capturing a sense of healing and hope. We can never really drift away from the memories of childhood, but it is also possible to re-envision those memories. These are the evocations that draw you more deeply into Worsham’s photos than Eggleston’s. We can see the thorns that Worsham’s heart hoards while at the same holding spring blooms.
George Tice is another photographer who can take extraordinary photographs of his family. In his book Photographs, 1953-1973, there are a handful of photographs, illustrating a great gentleness toward has family. There is one photo, of one of his daughters (maybe at 3-years old) who is sitting outside in a corner of the house holding grass. This photograph captures childhood, or, at least the ideal of childhood, poignantly. Think of the last time you were able to sit in a corner outside and feel the grass like Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451. Tice was a professional family portrait photographer as well, so this experience, no doubt, helped him take photographs of his family.
Paul Thulin’s book Pine Tree Ballads explores the relationship between family and memory. Unlike Tice’s photographs, Thulin’s photographs challenge traditional technique(s), and by doing so, reflect that family and memory are not perfect entities. What we think we know about our family may not be accurate. For instance, although the notion of innocence is present in Thulin’s photographs, there is also a sense that children know more about the darker workings of the world than they let on, letting facts hide in the shadows. How our memories have been etched within us may not actually be accurate either. Parents and children certainly have different perspectives and exhalations during the same moment in time, causing the sequence of events remembered to be off by one or two memories. Ultimately, Thulin’s photographs project the mirage, the certainty, and the uncharted of childhood and memory.
Of course, I could make photos of the land I have without family in them. Or, I could just take still lifes. This is also hard. I want the photos I make to evoke and project in a similar fashion to Worsham’s and Thulin’s or have the same intriguing geometry as Ueda’s, but these are very high bars to reach. However, maybe I am putting too much pressure on myself. I can say that I have only made maybe 15-20 of photographs that I actually like on my about 5 acres in the last three years. I will keep making photographs. I hope it never gets easy.
This is Part 1, of what I hope, will be an ongoing series about photographing what is near me.
Shoji Ueda ueda
William Eggleston Democratic Camera: Photographs and Videos, 1961-2008
Susan Worsham Contact Sheet 168: Bittersweet/Bloodwork
George Tice Photographs: 1953-1973
Paul Thulin Pine Tree Ballads