|'No!' c. 2003 © Lise Utne|
How can we ever say anything truthful about life, except through something of which we have first-hand knowledge? And yet, how can we be certain of our observations? Do we ever know the truth about others, no matter how close to us they may be? Do we even know the truth about ourselves? Is there such a thing as ‘the truth’? If I set out to show something real and truthful, all it will ever present is one tiny aspect of a complex reality. And yet, even that small glimpse may be too much, for how can I be certain that what I see is mine to show if it involves others? Thus, even self-exposure is potentially difficult terrain, since lives are always intertwined.
There are laws regulating these matters, of course, and unwritten codes of conduct accompanied by more or less severe sanctions on different levels. But some well-known photographers seem to have managed to navigate the complex territory of photographing their own family and friends and ‘living to tell the tale’ – to the enrichment of us all.
Nan Goldin’s extensive photographic record of her friends and lovers – her ‘tribe’, as she calls them – is an intimate exposure of a chosen non-conformist lifestyle. While in
|From Nan Goldin (2003) |
The Devil's Playground *
Richard Billingham’s photographs of what is often described as his ‘dysfunctional family’ were meant as sketches for paintings, but became a book in their own right (Ray’s a Laugh, 1996, an expensive collectors’ item). They are all the more striking for their raw observation of the photographer’s own family members, challenging the myth that family life is necessarily a territory of happiness.
|From Sally Mann (1992) |
Immediate Family **
I admire Sally Mann’s photographs greatly. She brings out the tensions in a seemingly idyllic setting; the fears that something might go wrong: life is unpredictable, and there is only so much we can do to protect our loved ones from harm.
The difficult lifestyles and acute human tensions of the relationships involved in the relationship between photographer and subject in those photographs by Nan Goldin and Richard Billingham make them seem particularly true and honest and open. In addition, the formal qualities of these works make them seem closer to home, both figuratively and literally speaking – although the situations shown are mostly not the stuff of traditional family albums. Nan Goldin’s self-declared aesthetic starting point is the snapshot:
|Fever. 28th August 2007 |
© Lise Utne
I feel enriched by those famous photographers’ courage to show some of the more challenging aspects of human relationships using the aesthetics of the family snapshot, or to treat the seemingly mundane events of family life with all the trappings of an art-photography approach. Nevertheless, some of my happiest photographic moments are spent poring over the family albums, or when I have managed to take what I consider a good snapshot of my own close family or friends (sometimes unwittingly inspired by those great names). But whether truth and honesty come into it at all, I don't know.
* The spread shows the works ‘My father shaving, Swampscott, Massachusetts, 1997’ and ‘My mother doing Tai Chi, Swampscott, Massachusetts, 1997’.
** The work shown here is ‘Last Light, 1990’.
Richard Billingham (1996) Ray's a Laugh. Zürich/New York/London: Scalo Verlag.
Nan Goldin (2003) The Devil's Playground. New York/London: Phaidon.
Nan Goldin / Elisabeth Sussmann (1996) I'll Be Your Mirror. New York / Zürich: Whitney Museum of American Art / Scalo Verlag.
Nan Goldin (1986) The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. New York: Aperture.
Sally Mann (1992) Immediate Family. London: Phaidon.