We photograph ourselves, our families and the details of our lives with a kind of frequency unknown through human history. Photographic capturing techniques are after all only an invention of the mid-nineteenth century. But in recent years, with the availability of digital cameras doing away with costly processing, it’s not uncommon for the average person to have hundreds of images stored as digital files that may never be printed and held in the hand.
In the last couple of years, digital smartphone applications like Instagram have even taken images of the mundane quotidian and somehow elevated them to the level of cultural artefact. But where do we draw the line? Should we draw a line at all? When are these images mere personal reminiscences and when do they constitute ‘art’?
Photographer Chris Verene’s (b.1969) project, Family, might shed some light on how we conceive of such boundaries. Verene spent twenty years photographing the lives of a number of families, including his own, in Gaylesburg, Illinois. The photographs record moments of happiness and celebration as well as moments of mundane normality. There is a striking humanity to his images that seem to come only as a consequence of the presence of the artist with the subjects over years. This relationship between artist and subject has become the purpose of the work. His connection to the place, as a consequence of personal familial connection and a sense of seeing the mundane as demonstrative of the hope and spirit inherent in the community, offers the viewer of these images a glimpse into the lives of the subjects that is unmatched by staged portraiture.
Verene’s works feature three generations of his family and the surrounding community, seen in bright flash and sunlight in a variety of mundane and plainspoken interiors, trailer parks, and nursing homes. The work goes beyond documentation, as Verene spends countless days and years in deep relationships that form the basis for the artwork. This personal touch is enhanced through handwritten captions in black oil paint, signifying important facts in the larger story. (source)
The unstaged documentary photography, almost always in colour, is marked by its composition and follows in the footsteps of photographic documentarians like Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and William Eggleston. But how and when does this project constitute ‘art’?
Three aspects of this project that allow me to appreciate the images as art are the technical aspect, the editing and curating, and the addition of commentary. First, the technical skill of these images is notable. They are perfectly focused and white balanced which is impressive for unstaged documentary portraiture. The composition is well thought out and often of narrative significance. Secondly, by his own admission, Verene took thousands of images of each subject and narrowed it down to just two. After this process, he asked for assistance from others who had no connection to the subjects to offer comment on the images they reacted to. The project benefits greatly from this editing and curating process. Finally, the juxtaposition of images and the captions is of note. Moreover, there is less description involved in the captions and more suggestion towards the symbolic meaning of the image for the lives of its subject.
What is significant about Verene’s project is the way that these images of the ordinary moments in the lives of his subjects, and as such our own lives, carry a poignancy that such ordinary ‘action-less’ moments do not. But as Verene himself points out, it is only in hindsight that one can grasp the contextual importance of what might seem an ordinary moment on an average day. There’s an inherent sadness to many of these images too – a purposelessness that might garner Kant’s approval but demonstrates a hopeless that depresses rather than uplifts. Yet the reality of divorce, teen pregnancy, broken relationships, and ageing is, as Verene puts it, “an honest edit” and, I would contend, in accord with the harsh reality of human existence. Should the goal of art be to present the world as it is? Or is there a sense in which good art is aspirational, tapping into the parts of ourselves we glimpse only momentarily in our most hopeful or triumphant moments? Or could it be, at its best, both at the same time?
What about the mundane moments of your own life — and of mine? Can Instagram be a medium employed by artists? I think it can, but only if (in some sense) the three aspects of technical skill, editing/curation, and commentary are also present.
Image credit: Chris Verene