Family Photography Now (Thames & Hudson, 2016) is a sort of follow-up to Sophie Howarth and Stephen McLaren’s Street Photography Now of 2010. Instead of an international (and somewhat historical) selection of street photographers, organized by general thematic concerns, the focus is now on photographers who work with families, both their own and others.
In general, Family Photography Now is more useful to me than its processor. I once had a fondness for Street Photography, but knew I’d never really practice it, but I do have a family, and I do photograph them, so perhaps I can take more inspiration from this newer collection.
I picked this book up in April, 2017, and it sat on the little table next to the end of the sofa where I sit and write for this blog, or stare blankly at the tele, or, more rarely, read for about 8 months. I don’t think I ever opened it, much less studied the photographs inside to try and draw inspiration for photographs I make of my own family.
In “Is my family normal?,” the introduction to the first section, titled ‘This Is My Life,’ Howarth quotes Martin Parr saying “Most family albums are a form of propaganda, where the family looks perfect and everyone is smiling.” And this is true, though what “perfect” and “smiling” mean to any given member of any given family is anyone’s guess. Take, for example, this series from my own family archive: Samie, Firas, and me, posed by me and photographed by the Hanabibti, all the while shouting for everyone to smile and get closer together.
Normal family, indeed.
So that’s the first half of the book, photographers picturing their own families, trying to make sense of it all, and some art, maybe. In the second half, ‘May I come in?,’ introduced by McLaren in an essay titled “Thanks for sharing!,”a rumination on the importance of family snapshots in the digital age, through the lens of Blade Runner and Gibson’s concept of cyberspace, the book transitions to photographers picturing other people’s families. McLaren’s essay has little to do with the photographs that follow (or precede) it, and probably would’ve been better at the very end of the book, if not left out altogether, as it’s very much of-a-time, name-checking a bunch of 2016-era Instagrammers and describing various social media hubs as they were then, as if they would always stay that way. Howarth’s essay is far more universal, and relevant, to the book.
As far as the photographs and photographers themselves, the practices and results are varied. One-off, short-term, long-term, most work in series, documenting their own families over time, making the most of difficult situations, creating a sense of family and belonging where there is none, claiming some sort of agency for the subjects or self, and/or serving as, or recalling, a historical record.
“We didn’t want to create a book in which readers could easily identify, or aspire to identify, with all those photographed. Instead we wanted to appeal to a more generous concept of empathy, by showing work that enlarges our capacity to be touched by lives often very different from our own.” So says Howarth, later in the introduction, and I think I get that from it, though that’s not what I was looking for, and the inspiration I was looking for in it never really materialized.
In truth, I probably haven’t spent enough time with Family Photography Now, but in pouring over it for this review, I’m a bit ambivalent about it. The format of Street Photography Now, grouping photographers by suggestive themes, worked well enough—thought I haven’t spent much time with that book either—but it falls down a bit with families. Some of the inclusions seem shoe-horned, and the conceptual coherence of the projects are a bit uneven.
The book itself is bound well and printed well. Thames & Hudson tend to do a good job with coffee-table type photobooks. And while the concept—showing the breadth and depth of family photography in the early 21st Century—is interesting, I’m not convinced that it was executed.
Overall, I’d give Family Photography Now 2.5 stars, though it probably deserves more than that, and it and it’s predecessor are both going into my sell pile. They deserve to spend some time with someone who will appreciate them, rather than lounging on my shelves, gathering dust, and taking up valuable shelf space.
If you’re interested in taking either (or both) off my hands, reach out and make me an offer. I bet we can come to an arrangement. They’re both in near-mint condition, largely unread, and with only minor shelf-wear, and I’ll ship all bubble wrapped and everything. Let me know. And both remain available at fine online booksellers everywhere, if you just have to have a new copy. Honestly, I sorta regret not appreciating these books. I feel like I should. Maybe it’s amateur jealousy, or I don’t know. I just know that I don’t much care for either…