Documentary family photography as fine art

Pleased as pie to have my work hanging in an exhibit at Glen Echo Photoworks in Glen Echo, MD, as part of a group show called "The Miraculous in the Mundane". 

July 6- August 12, 2018 (Reception/gallery talk, Sunday, July 8th, 5-7pm)

Aniya Emtage Legnaro, Katie Jett Walls, Chelsea Silbereis

"Against a tidal wave of perfectly-crafted instagram squares, three documentary photographers are making pictures that honor the disregarded, even disdained, condition of authentic childhood. In these photos, the photographers uphold raw truths: the good, the bad and the banal moments typical to the lives of children. It’s no accident that these photographers are mothers themselves – tempered by the all too real experiences of bringing up very real children. By honoring and documenting the gritty truth, they craft a photographic epistle that challenges contrived portraiture and celebrates the miraculous in the mundane."

Below, the text of my artist talk at the opening reception: 

"I want to thank all of you for coming this evening! And thank you to Gayle Rothschild and her team at Photoworks, and to our curator, Iason Demos, for guiding this exhibit with a clear and nuanced eye. 

This evening is finally here! We’re pretty excited. This undertaking actually began last winter when a friend sent me the Glen Echo Photoworks call for submissions. 

I knew right away that I wanted to submit some of the documentary family work I’ve made, and I knew exactly which photographers in my orbit that I wanted to ask to come in on this with me. 

Aniya is a friend and colleague with whom I’ve bonded and worked closely with for several years now - we even traveled to Puerto Rico together in January to document families there. Her photos of her own family and their life on Barbados are rich and emotive. 

And Chelsea, I didn’t know quite as well, but I loved her work — it is completely fresh and different from just about everything I see in the family documentary field - the way that she sees and draws stories from a given moment is dry and humorous and unflinching. 

They agreed to collaborate with me, and we spent a couple of weeks of intense work, in spite of thousands of miles between us, selecting the right images and crafting the overarching narrative that ties together our different perspectives. 

When we finished and submitted our proposal, we had learned so much, we’d fallen in love with the idea of sharing our work in this way, and we agreed it was worth the effort whether we were selected or not. 

And then, we were selected. And I am going to be honest: I was not shocked. I know this is good work, and I am so very happy that the discerning eyes here at Photoworks saw in these images what we see in them. We are so happy for the opportunity to put this work on the walls of a gallery, as the fine art that it is.

While I do feel confident that the work belongs here, I have to say, at no point in the making of any of my images, was I shooting with that intention. 

In some cases, the photos you see were made during commissioned sessions with families who hired me to tell their stories in photos. When I am working for a family, there are two parts of me operating simultaneously.  There’s the part of me that is learning second by second who these wonderful people are and how they  show their connection and love for each other. How they reveal their personalities. How I can tell their story. 

The *other* part of me is the selfish artist-y part, hungry for moments of transcendence - for flashes of something deeper that is really hard to put into words. There’s a kind of mental scent in the air when a picture has a life beyond the obvious, and I find myself hunting it. I smell it in the patient, awkward peeling of an egg with childish hands - beauty in the struggle and in the fragments of shell that come off so slowly and haphazardly. I smell it in the forms of childish bodies finding their footing on a rocky shore - the grace of youth, the inexplicable nostalgia that emanates from it.

And then, there are the photos not taken during commissioned sessions. These images came out of the work of being an artist. There are endless hours invested in practicing making good pictures. I’m photographing All The Time.  Thankfully it’s work that gives me almost constant joy - but it’s work nonetheless. I keep my camera on hand as often as I can - and it’s not enough to simply wait for a great moment and not miss it. The work is to be making an interesting photograph no matter what is happening. And keeping my mental “nose” in the air for those moments when the photo gods recognize your hard work and pull back the curtain and show you a moment of transcendence.

A moment such as the utterly confounding admonition to stay out of a puddle when you’re wearing perfectly delightful rain boots — why? And yet we can all relate to the parent’s outstretched finger: don’t do it. The conflict in this moment is playful and humorous. So too is the delight of the ridiculous as a beach ball obscures and replaces a child’s head in a game of catch. The thrower of the ball has his eyes closed, so quite possibly the only person who saw this split second is me, the photographer, with the device that freezes time and makes the joke possible at all.

And I see other darker moments in the stare of my son as he sits in the bath wearing nothing but a superhero mask. He’s not playing, he’s not even washing. He’s impenetrable and unknowable. Do I really know this child - aren’t they all a little mysterious, if we’re honest? Who are they becoming behind their little masks? Ask yourself.

And finally, why do I make this work? What is the end goal of following that scent to the photo that needs to be made? For me, it’s exploration. It’s a collaboration with creativity that takes me outside of myself. The work of it feels good, and once in a while, when a truly good photo emerges, well it feels like striking gold. 

I also do this in hope that photos like these will help us all strip out some of the fluff and fakery from the images we make and believe of childhood and family life. The temptation is always there to create a fiction with our family photos, something that skirts real life but cleaner, in nicer clothes, with all the kids smiling and parents calm, preferably as far away from our own houses as possible because that’s where the mess is. But I believe that the miraculous moments, the sweet, aching, lovely moments, the authentically funny moments, those happen right in the heart of the mundane. I believe the beauty of family life exists at it’s most real. I want you to believe that with me. Authenticity is a revolutionary act. Being at ease with authenticity is radical. I hope each of the photographs in this exhibit stirs something authentic inside you. 

Thank you.