Monday, January 03, 2011

On Family Portraits

At this season of the year, lots of family portraits have been landing in my mailbox, my inbox, and my Facebook feed. They have been formal and informal, current and quite antique; it has gotten me thinking about this tradition in my own family. My husband's family was too poor and often too demoralized, after the death of his little brother, to have ever had one made. My family made only a couple of sporadic attempts to have group pictures taken. I remember one of the first five children by a traveling photographer, one by a photographer for the Schenectady Gazette, when my mother was Mother of the Year for the County, and one by a friend, whose lens caused the heads at the edges of the photo to be misshapen. You might get to see all of these very soon now that I am thinking of them. S and I made one attempt, only partly successful, before our first two children were in school. Since I like photography SO MUCH, one might think I would have managed more. What I like, though, are those gesture-captures like the one above of married friends at a campfire we had this fall--the feet of their child also in the photo. I hope to post others in the coming days.

My sister Susan married a man with a tradition--they had a family portrait taken every year. Most ot them were tacked to a school-sized corkboard in their family room for many years.

Here is what Saul Steinberg said in the 1970s, deploring the decline of traditional photographic portraiture. It's in the current Paris Review #195, page 36. (I LOVE the Paris Review, but lately, I have been loving the New Yorker even more. If it is true: the predicted death of magazines, I will mourn forever.)

"Russia remains the only place where portraits are still made according to the old rules. I've made drawings of them. A couple: a man in military uniform, with all the medals on his chest, and his wife whose chest is as big as his, without medals. Both of them are on the verge of bursting into tears from the sheer seriousness of the thing. And naked babies, plump as whales, and entire families photographed in the most dignified way: the older people in chairs, the younger people surrounding them, and the littlest ones at the base of the pyramid."
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