Dragging family into focus

What could it mean to dismantle the personal and private and what is at stake with artists who chose this route? What about artists whose work has a starting point in the home and the problematic nature of their own family situations? Is sharing daring? The private and personal in art today continues to be a subject loaded with opposing views and values; which we will see in the artists works in the following discussion and the legacy they have left behind.

Gender roles – and the struggle for change.

Let´s look back for a while – The Feminist awakening of the 70s and its manifestation in contemporary art described, among other things, the conflict in the role of women divided between career and solid-rooted motherhood.

The Swedish artist Anna Sjödahl’s iconic painting Vår i Hallonbergen1 had a political message, a commentary in the debate about the liberation of women. She used herself, her home and her family, but she did not show them explicity but merely revealed the traces of them, Vår i Hallonbergen can hardly be said to be autobiographical.

Anna Sjödahl had a clear agenda and intention. You can feel the socio-political climate and her own struggle with being an artist and a mother. Her work is very explicit and anything but anxious. It is politically charged and anchored in her time. She also uses humor and makes a general gesture. Let´s say she got away from critique concerning the private, though still using issues from home. In the feminist magazine Vi Mänskor1 from 1973, the artist is described as follows:

“Anna Sjödahl is an artist and mother. With our usual way of expressing it, the order is usually the reverse: mother and artist.

The mother identity is considered the most important, especially if it´s more than one child. This spring she had an exhibition at the Konstfrämjandet in Stockholm, in which she kicked off in both of her roles, and not, as the rules of the game dictate, exhibited the artist and left her private life outside. ”

This quote point out the possible impact of being private, revealing the female artists conditions. Her work is political, it´s about liberation and a today still on going struggle for equality.

Abuse, – feeding the public with misery

If we jump forward two decades to a time when photography had started to be more theorized and self-critical. Not forgetting earlier works like Martha Rosler´s The Bowery from the 70´s also dealing with representation and abuse. Her work was opening up for a debate regarding abuse, but without depicting the individual people and instead showing an area in the city were impoverished people end up and the leftovers, bottles, and traces in the early morning.

In the photo book Ray’s a laugh from 1996, the English photographer Richard Billingham tackles important issues about representation and the private – he allows his own family (his both parents and brother) with drug problems and unemployment to be presented in photographs to the public. During the early 1990’s he had started documenting his dysfunctional family with a camera while studying fine art at Sutherland Art College.2

When a guest critic suggested that he hang the photographs on the wall instead of the paintings, he moved from one medium to another and “loaded” the pictures with the authenticity issues of photography. They ended up on the walls of London’s Royal Academy in the Sensation – a controversial exhibition that took place in 1997. Charles Saatchi, a collector of contemporary art, launched a new generation of British artists presenting amongst others Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Rachel Whiteread. Animals were chopped in pieces and put in vitrines, there were sculptures of children who had penises for noses. Due to Richard Billingham being part of this exhibition his work was framed in a certain context and interpreted, as a young artist, wanting to provoke and shake the world, but it doesn´t say whether it actually was his own intention or if it was a result of the framing.

His intention is not as clear as Anna Sjödahl, as he chose to explain the starting point of the photographs as being inspiration and sketches for his painting studies.

Questions that arise concerning the book two decades later revolve around the ambivalent relationship between children and parents. There is an unlimited trust in these images between the photographer and the subject. Hence also a responsibility to relate to.

It is interesting that it was not Billingham himself who took the initiative to exhibit the photographs but was instead his painting teacher. In one sense, it can be seen as a strategy to protect himself from excessive responsibility – upon the disclosure of his dysfunctional family.

His snapshots captured with a simpler camera and developed in the photo store around the corner bear the touch of the random moment but also of a documentary tradition. The flash amplifies everything, brings out the shit, the quality makes it believable. He is right in time with his colourful, grainy and wild expressions that reinforce the ingrown dirt.

There is no presentation or explanatory text in the book to relate to.

In 2016, he was interviewed in the Guardian3 and asked about the boundary between exploitation and documentary. Was Billingham concerned about crossing that limit when he photographed his family?

“Not really. That’s why you put them in a gallery,” he says. “You frame them in a certain way to allow a particular reading of them. But now you have the internet, the pictures are all there out of context…”

Does it bother him?

“With the photographs I tried to make them as truthful as I could and hopefully that element overcomes any exploitative element,” he says. “I think there was a warmth to them.”

Kieran Cashell, lecturer in critical and contextual studies at the school of art and design at the Limerick Institute of Technology, twists and turns Billingham’s work in the book and allows various critical voices to be heard. The critic who thinks he should pick up his father and wash him instead of photographing him, as well as those who think Billingham is coldly calculating.4

Cashell instead chooses to see Billingham as countering the typical form of reporting with preconceived and commercial productions that ridicule the English working class – what he does is invite us to see – but make us feel ashamed. Billingham does not alienate from his family, he is also there!

Cashell suggests that Richard Billingham share his own life and experience from a personal point of view. It´s his own family and they happen to be working-class. The stigmatization could be said to lie in the eyes of the viewer. Billingham is not a middle class photographer and a tourist in a working class home. He happens to come from a working-class family with difficulties – not saying that´s how things usually are.

At the moment he decides to use the photographic sketch material, instead of the actual paintings, the indexicality shift in the reading of the work. If Billingham had shown his family in acrylic there might have been a debate regarding the same issues but photography take a leap to another more brutal mode of truth. That´s the strength and at times weakness with photography, still being read as a more truth full describer of the world.

Children. Not reserved to the family album

A bit earlier, still in the 90´s, American photographer Sally Mann, like Richard Billingham, introduced family members in her pictures. But while Billingham seems to let the serendipity and an amateur shooting style rule the work, Mann works in a deliberately slow and controlled fashion using a large-format camera and staged subjects.

Her 1992 book Immediate family received, according to her, an unexpected recognition with very positive reviews, but also extreme criticism. The motives of the photographs are her children who, in an Eden-like setting, move freely, naked and play with the symbols and roles of the adult world.

Sally Mann could not predict what would happen when the book was published.

In the afterword to Immediate family, Reynolds Price give a fine, but at the same time uncritical picture seen to the massive condemnation, of how the children pose in front of her mother’s camera.

He compares the pictures with other family’s private family pictures that usually collect dust in an old torn box. As I read his tender and close description of the pictures and family members, it can now be perceived as naive given the sometimes personal and furious criticisms that the work created.

”I can wish that my own, and many more lives, had been watched and honoured from the absolute start by fearless, honest and fervently tender eyes like those, on guard and patiently standing watch, in all these pages.”5

Let´s suggest that Chris Billingham in some sense renunce the responsibility for showing photographs instead of paintings due to a guest teacher, we could likewise choose to see the text in the afterwords of Sally Mann’s book as a way to try to justify and de-dramatize the images to protect herself and her family.

”I expected that the book would be received in much the same way as the one I published four years earlier, “At Twelve.” That book, which showed pictures of young girls on the cusp of adolescence, resulted in modest attention and took about a decade to sell out its small press run.”6

As I leaf through the book, I think of the longing for security. In the calm Eden-like settings lies undertones of the future and the reminder of an essential separation from childhood. Here we find not only images of innocence and childrens game, but also accidents and decay. The dark vignettes of the pictures and the silence seem to ponder a storm or an uncertain future, something that would be reinforced in her later work.

In an interview in the New York Times from 2015, Mann reflects on the ways in which time and criticism had changed her attitude towards her own work. She points to the bad timing of publishing Immediate Family, along with a furious debate about Robert Mapplethorpe´s work where images of children were included in his controversial output.

”And all of this was worsened by the cosmically bad timing of the book’s release, which coincided with a debate around an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs that included images of children along with sadomasochistic and homoerotic imagery, stimulating widespread discussion about what constituted obscenity in art. Into this turbulent climate, I had put forth my family pictures.”7

In the book Aftershock, for the Ethics of Contemporary Transgressive Art, Kieran Cashell opens up a discussion about Mann’s work. He seems to have taken a clear position against her project as he points to the pedophilic undertones and stigmatisation of the erotic. He claims that the high technical quality of the images reinforces the connection to pornography and violence on the child, in his opinion also a reason to why her work should not be defended on aesthetic grounds.8

Discussing the private in public space may seem to be a minefield in the light of, in particular, Sally Mann and Richard Billingham. The influence of the various media also feels crucial, where Anna Sjödahl is free from disclosure because her work is perceived as fiction and not directly linked to any related person. The inherent autenticity of photography makes Mann’s and Billingham’s work extra sensitive and problematic.

Walking the line today

Anna Clarén is a contemporary Swedish photographer who has walked the line of personal and private, having to present a stance for the many questions posed regarding her work.

As a photographer probably most known for her work Holding, 2006. Her “limit” regarding the private stops at self-pity she claims in a chronicle.9 Her method, using photography, is to be as honest and sincere as she can, telling how she experiences existence, straight, without explanation or intellectualisation.

She stresses that an autobiographical story can be perceived as unpleasant, as if the story can be too uncomfortably intimate, even embarrassing for the viewer.

Her idea is that it´s not about the degree of self-disclosure, but about the degree of self-pity. Taking part of another person’s sorrow may be fine, she states, but having to bare the sorrow to someone else, it becomes too heavy and sticky.

An autobiographical story about sadness and longing can also be comforting, but she underlines that self-pity never should be an ingredient. Instead anger or humour can take place next to sorrow and then the story becomes a vehicle, in the service of life.

Photography, an aggressive media.

Richard Billingham is reloading his images with increased authencity,(moving from painting to photography), a way to “tame” the indexicality of photography could be to combine it with text. Though Billingham chooses not to use text – suddenly we are mentally standing in an apartment with his drunk father with no ideas or guidelines what will happen next.

As an opposite way of showing misery, Martha Rosler´s Bowery, showed us the traces of depraved existences, not revealing their identities. Her text is playing with our minds about abuse and results of it in general, – but it is not in the private sense.

Anna Sjödal´s painting Vår i hallonbergen could in a sence be said to have photographic qualities presenting what might be her own apartment framed with straight lines and a window view showing new-built apartment blocks outside. However she twists the photographic experience with a munch-like mother, it´s black humour, and the statically framed room dissolves.

In Sally Mann´s sleepy garden the small world of her children, trigger the quality of photography, when beauty and violence linger together in a dangerous combination. Her work still seems to be the most difficult piece to relate to.

Sally Mann, has in recent years revaluated her works and openly presented her own ambiguity to her work and about how it was presented.

Anna Clarén´s work is said to be like a diary, and it´s true that she takes part in the work, with self-portraits and straight-forward images. Her openness and her willingness to explain her issues in text also are a way to ground her work.

Privacy in photography.

The private and personal have been and still are important parts in many works related to the photographic medium and questions about representation.

Some of the artists mentioned in the text, have had unexpectedly hard times defending their work, while exploring and pushing the limits concerning the private and personal.

Susan Sontag pointed out some exploiting, horrific examples of photography in Regarding the pain of others creating an intellectual awareness and fear of being a part of colonial traditions and a fear of being a tourist with a camera collecting trophies.

Working with photography and working in the field of representation includes risks of being thrown to the lions whether we point the camera towards strangers in the street or the family at home.

Reflecting over the different artists work opens up for the idea that you could be both personal and private. Trying to find a definition regarding what´s personal and perhaps too private in art has to be the individual artist´s decision in the first step – what are the artist´s own limits and precautions?

If we agree upon that being personal means reflecting, being aware and using your own experience to dismantle personal issues that could be transformed to a universal discussion, then the private could be said to be the dangerous land from which it is derived. A lawless place where the conversation between the creator and the viewer could be either boosted or result in a massive collision or a break- down where the communication fails.

There are examples of extremely personal stories about loss, disease and personal troubles. The next step could be these stories are received as either provocative private issues or appreciated as a new experience.

To put in other words, either looked upon as personal therapy for the artist that shouldn´t be displayed– or – an eye opener, that contributes to new knowledge and awareness about other peoples situation.

  1. Walden Louise et al. 1973. var dags liv, Vi mänskor, nr 3 1973 p. 26-27
  2. Cotton Charlotte, The photograph as contemporary art, London, 2009. p. 150
  3. Adams Tim, 2016, The Guardian, Sunday 13 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/13/richard-billingham-tower-block-white-dee-rays-a-laugh-liz, 171203
  4. Cashell Kieran, Aftershock: the ethics of contemporary transgressive art, London, 2009. p.23
  5. Mann Sally, Immediate family,New York, 1992.
  6. Mann Sally, 2015, The New York Times Magazine, April 16, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/the-cost-of-sally-manns-exposure.html, 171203
  7. Mann Sally, 2015, The New York Times Magazine, April 16, 2015
  8. Cashell Kieran, 2009. p.122
  9. Clarén Anna, 2016, Fotografisk Tidskrift, December 20, 2016, https://www.sfoto.se/kronika/sprang-gransen-till-det-innersta/, 180427