In Larry Sultan’s book “Pictures from home, 1982-1992”, we see family snapshots mixed with texts and pictures that the son took of his parents, a wealthy American couple in their 70s living in Palm Springs, a suburban town in the West Coast of America, during the Reagan era. We immediately recognize that this book is a family album, but we aren’t overwhelmed by the usual beautiful and tender memories, we don’t see the celebration of family values, nor the love and happiness that usually fill the pages of our albums. Nobody is smiling (they were instructed not to). There is green carpeting in the house of this golf-obsessed, tanned old businessman, who was forced into early retirement after serving as vice president of Schick Razor Co.. Sometimes the couple is arguing, more often they are disconnected, repairing the hoover, reading papers or watching TV. The camera diligently registers the make-up on an old face, the messy kitchen table, office desk and bedside cabinets, the gross raw turkey for Thanksgiving. Isn’t this the banality of life? How tacky is the American dream? Larry Sultan started from his sociological criticism of the capitalistic family mythology, but soon found himself trapped into restlessly documenting every single aspect of normalcy that common family albums tend to hide.
Other photographers’ family albums can be unsettling or unflattering too. Sally Mann has in the past been criticized for her book “Immediate Family”, 1992. Her work has always been stunningly beautiful, with black and white large format photographs, that she prints herself in her home in Virginia, USA. The pictures of her own children have been judged too sexual or controversial. The children are almost always naked but what is really problematic, is that these children do not look like children: they do not seem innocent. They show a complex psychology and a great variety of expressions that we more easily associate with adult life: they can be angry, lascivious, tough, mysterious, eerie, vain, flirtatious, playful, sick, and even bloodied or injured. Sometimes we perceive shadows or water as a premonition of death or danger. Mann’s work has prompted the question: "It May Be Art, but What About the Kids?" Her last work is “Proud Flesh”: the book explores the aging of her own husband presenting late-onset muscular dystrophy. He agreed to be photographed with no reserve and the couple truly believes in the power and importance of this work. In Sally’s words: “I look, all the time, at the people and places I care about, and I look with both ardor and frank, aesthetic, cold appraisal. And I look with the passions of both eye and heart, but in that ardent heart, there must also be a splinter of ice.”
“A splinter of ice”: these words resonate in me. Why would a photographer want to document his or her family story by creating such a family album? And is it socially and ethically acceptable?