13 July 2011

Family, Chris Verene

Photographs by Chris Verene. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2008.

In the short 'afterword' appended to Chris Verene's recently published monograph, Family, the photographer refers to the images collected here — photographs made over a period of 26 years in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois — as 'my life's work.' After a careful, fascinated reading of this complicated book, one is tempted to ask why Verene chooses to say 'my life's work' rather than, simply, 'my life'. After all, the intimate relationships and intense trust that exist between the photographer and his subjects (many of whom are members of Verene's close family) are clearly in evidence. His relations and neighbours are often presented during periods of extreme personal hardship, struggling with unemployment, illness and loss, and, as the photographer himself is at pains to point out, they are fully aware of and complicit in his presentation of these photographs in an 'art' context.

This last point is especially worthy of notice, as the book lays itself open to the accusation that its human subjects are somehow exploited — presented not so much as self-determined individuals as they are emblems of a particular working-class situation. The importance given to 'setting' in Verene's work, and his attention to manufactured objects and surfaces — for example, in the decorated interiors of 'Mabe and Marion's Front Porch' or 'Candi's Wedding..' — can intensify the feeling that these photographs identify the people presented with their material circumstances, and that we are simply 'looking in' on these lives in the interest of visual novelty, without any hope of gaining deeper understanding or sympathy.

However, it seems to me that Verene has thought very carefully about these representational issues and is sensitive to the implications of presenting a personal documentary project in the public context of an 'art' publication. He self-consciously borrows from the visual language of personal objects such as family scrapbooks and photo albums, juxtaposing the scrawled, anecdotal 'captions' that accompany his images with the scale and production values of an exclusive, luxurious photobook. His photographs, individually and as a series, are a disquieting mix of the confessional and naturalistic with images, such as that showing his cousin Heidi 'in her Renaissance Fair Dress', that are overtly theatrical. By playing with distance and intimacy like this, Verene acknowledges the element of storytelling involved in making and reading this book, while also emphasizing his subjects' own capacity for role-play.

In this respect, it surprises me that some comments about the book have only emphasized Verene's role as 'authentic' documentarian. While it is true that many of the photographs in Family are uncompromising, affecting depictions of real events — Verene's uncle loses custody of his children, his friend Amber is forced to live in her car when she loses her home — it would be wrong to completely detach this work and Verene's other, more emphatically 'theatrical' projects. His work often stages the imaginative lives of his subjects, as well as the bare facts or episodes of their existence. The flattened, cluttered, inhabited interiors created by his use of flash, his lack of interest in natural surroundings (or light) and his constant return to special occasions and dressing up (note the number of photos taken at Christmas) all have the function of throwing your attention onto the vitality, the character, of those he photographs. This book never loses this quality of warmth and vision, constantly avoiding sentimentality and questioning the reader's search for authenticity.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 12th February 2011, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are from Family, by Chris Verene. Published by Twin Palms Publishers, 2008.