When my dad passed away, me and my siblings inherited a collection of thousands of family photographs. One of my older brothers took charge of them and spent a long time scanning prints, before sharing them online for the rest of us to enjoy. I often look through them, and frequently come across images that seem to transcend the everyday family snapshot.
The featured image at the top of this post is a great example. Downtown Chicago, looking west along East Jackson Boulevard from just before its intersection with South Wabash Avenue. I wish I knew who took that picture. It could have been Dad or Mum, but equally it could have been little me, as I was fascinated by the overhead trains in Chicago, and had recently learnt how to work my dad’s new Zenit EM. I’ll never know for sure.
There are lots of great pictures from our early 80s trips to the US and Canada. Many of them are standard snapshots of us lined up as a family in front of some attraction, such as Niagara Falls, or photos of me doing something silly while wearing a newly procured Stetson hat. Then there are pictures that jump out again like the one below, which has an immediacy that reminds me of photos by Stephen Shore or William Eggleston. Again, I’m not sure who took it. If it was my dad, what was he trying to record? Did he like the sporty silver car just left of centre, or was he amused by the sight of a VW Golf on the other side of the Atlantic?
A recurring motif throughout the collection of pictures is Mum asleep on beds. She was probably around the age I am now, when afternoon naps become a bit more appealing, perhaps even necessary. I’m pretty sure my dad took the picture below, because he took similar ones on later holidays when I was too old to go away with my parents. I particularly like this one because of the same spontaneity communicated by that snapshot aesthetic. The composition is loose and unconsidered, showing the wire hanging down the wall, the Rubik’s Cube, and other items by the bedside. They’re unusual pictures that make me wonder what drove him to capture the image. Was he just amused by his wife going to sleep, or did he feel compelled by some artistic instinct to document such moments?
I’m pretty sure my mum took the picture above, because I actually have a memory of her shouting out to my dad, asking him to turn around. I think it’s a nice composition, with the leading lines and my dad’s casual but slightly impatient pose.
The next shot wasn’t in the US, but Mum clearly took this because I’m there in the frame, peeping out from behind my dad, who looks super cool in this picture. Note again the nice composition, with plenty of space around the subject.
Another recurring motif is the car interior, featuring the rear view mirror. I really like the one below. I’m tempted to conclude I took it, as I would usually ride in the back seat while my mum was next to Dad in the front. I could be wrong though. This was a holiday, so perhaps I was up front enjoying the view of a long, straight American highway. Other similar pictures exist from more recent holidays after I had left home, which suggests this was a favourite composition Mum liked to use.
Below is another bed shot, taken in some motel room in the US. This one is superb, and particularly interesting to me because of the Shore/Eggleston feel to it. The composition is really neat with the beds and the panelled walls in the foreground, leading us out past the curtains and through the window. Mum isn’t on the bed, so I’m not sure who took this, but again, what were they trying to show? Was it the light on the panelling, the soft shadowy ripples on the bed by the window, or the uninspiring view outside? I think this is another example of someone being compelled by an artistic impulse to capture the moment, and they succeeded.
The second shot above is similar in terms of the subject matter, and the depth and layering. It’s a photo of the interior of my brother’s apartment in East Lansing, Michigan. To me, this is an equally excellent photograph. Look at the tight framing, the straight lines, the angles, and the sense of movement through the picture into the bedroom, where there’s a glimpse of a bed, curtains, plants, and beyond through the window to a brick wall outside.
The last picture below, is definitely one of Mum’s. By this time (2011), Dad wasn’t taking photos himself, so she was always in charge of the camera. I was married and didn’t go on group family holidays like this, so it can’t be one of mine. Note the really strong composition. It’s not perfect, but either this was a lucky shot, or she really had an eye for classical photographic elements like the curving ‘S’ of the path, the sweeping bay, the clifftop castle, and the people in the foreground adding some human interest and depth.
Mum and Dad had definite photographic styles. My dad’s pictures had an instinctive, urgent, documentary, snapshot feel to them, as if he was driven to record a moment or something he saw, and wasn’t too fussed about the composition. My mum’s photos are what most people would recognise as nice pictures. They follow traditional rules of composition, and it’s obvious she really tried to take good photos, finding the right viewpoint, the right framing, and pleasant subjects that appealed to her.
In Vernacular Photography: The Democratic Art, Dr Brian Edward Hack says he believes “The Art Spirit exists, and that it exists in far more people than is generally acknowledged.” He explains how for him, finding a snapshot with that special something is “often a realisation that a human being once encountered this object, or this person, or this natural form, and saw its inherent beauty. They knew. Instinctually, perhaps, or perhaps not.” I completely agree with this, and the conclusion I have come to, is that both my parents had that artistic impulse that manifested itself in different ways and to different degrees throughout their lives, and that it is visible in some of their family snapshots.
I would love to try pulling together an edit of around thirty or forty of these pictures, and arranging them into a sequence that tells some kind of story. Obviously such a curated arrangement would by its nature colour the pictures themselves and lead a viewer to infer there was a deeper meaning that perhaps wasn’t originally there or intended. Still, I think it would be a fascinating exercise.
I’m going to end this post with a picture I know was taken by me.