Family photographs were the subject of my dissertation and first book, You’re a Picture, You’re Not a Picture. I analyzed how families picture themselves through their own photographs, what that picturing implies in terms of association, sibling order, gender relations, etc. How does the sociology of the American family—for instance, birth order—affect pictures, and does that “fact” become an image for the family?

Narratives grow with and in time, the family story about what and who came when. If Little Sister had been the oldest, would she have spoken more? Father was the baby in his family, did him no good. The qualities that make the baby appealing just made him arrogant. Mother, though younger than Clarissa, couldn’t be the baby. Clarissa needed so much care, hot-wired the way she was.

Whose “I”/“eye” can be trusted? From what I learned in my family, I don’t trust anyone in front of or behind a camera, but I keep my bias out of it. Kidding. 

Is trust an issue in art, and if so why? 

I interviewed over a hundred families across America, and chose pictures from their stacks, or they did the choosing. They told me who was who, and what; what was going on, and weird narratives spilled out. I inferred meanings, as an ethnographer, sorting through the consonances and dissonances, and what the gaps meant, if anything. A picture can actually tell you very little, which is why Thematic Apperception Tests (TAT) invented by psychologists in the 1930s still appeal, at least in research. The open-endedness of pictures has been utilized to study the mystery of perception, emerging from an individual human psyche, as the subject sees into a picture what is not there. One can’t read an expression as a revelation of character or personality; it is just temporal, an affect, often for the camera. 

Behind so many smiles, I see: Eat Shit, Asshole. But then that’s me. 

The concept of family resemblance is reasonable, given genetics, but it’s peculiar, because what makes a resemblance isn’t clear, there’s no feature-by-feature similarity. Most of us in families share a resemblance. Fascination with the “family other”—a neologism I coined in an early pubbed article—is dulled by the other’s being related by blood; yet what’s near can be farther (what’s in the mirror is farther than you think), because up close, we’re less able to see each other. I don’t look like my brother, but everyone says I do. I feared Bro Hart. He wanted to kill me at birth. Reaction formation, correct. 

Often we hate our siblings, our blood, who might be our murderers. The Greeks, Shakespeare, et al. 

A family’s secrets appear as absences and exclusions, erasures and deletions. A first marriage was annulled: no photos. A child given up for adoption, no pix of the pregnant mother. The not-there, un-pictured life—think about it, an un-pictured life—or invisible story, hangs around the edges of albums, obscene, out of sight, off screen, you name it. Still, it functions along with the already-silent conversation of non-speaking pictures. 

The incapacity to see—SEE—resides within the self, a condition I half-jokingly call The Fault Dear Brutus syndrome. I’m sampling Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Cassius saying: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” 

Don’t tell Americans they’re underlings.

Read more here.

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