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Chris Verene's first collection of photographs of his family, entitled Chris Verene, was one of my favorite collections of photographs in the last decade. As I wrote in my review of his images of his family: "There's a tension in these images that I love: there's no reason to doubt that Verene loves his family, but he looks at their lives and the pictures he takes show that he hates something in what he sees." This more recent collection is similar to the first, showing the same people in similar situations and looking quite odd or awkward. Yet this collection is easier to interpret as an affectionate portrait of Verene's world.
Yet it is difficult to pin down the difference between the two books. The books are about the same size -- the older is slightly larger format -- and they contain some of the same pictures. Yet there are small differences which help to explain the clearer indication of Verene's affection for his subjects. The first image in the prior book has the caption "This is my own family portrait in Galesburg. They are sitting for Christmas Breakfast." The picture is quite yellow, presumably from the indoor lights. The same picture also is at the start of Family, now with a different caption: "My Family at Christmas Breakfast. Aunt Louise, My Mom, Grandpa, My Dad, and Grammy." The new version has been corrected for the indoor lighting and the colors are much more natural. Naming the people and his specific relations to them makes the photograph more personal, and rephrasing it avoids the distancing word "They." Another picture shows his cousin Steve and his aunt Doris, sitting in a restaurant. The only word there is "Christmas." The colors in the new version are less bright, and there is more contrast in the clothing. In the old version, Steve's face is bright, almost as if there is a spotlight on him, but the lighting looks more normal in the new version. Behind them are two dressed-up dolls holding electric candles, and they are more noticeable in the old version, upstaging the main subjects.
Verene's parents used to work at the "Research" mental hospital. Presumably this was the Galesburg State Research Hospital, one of the major employers until it closed in 1985, and notable because psychiatrist Harold Himwich developed the drug Chlorpromazine there. Many of Verene's pictures feature people who used to be patients there. His friend Rozie was a patient there, and we see her in many photographs, on her bicycle, with her mother, in her new apartment, and at her mother's grave. We see signs of her dealing with delusions -- presumably it's her writing on her apartment wall about god and devils. The pictures of Rozie and her other people who are living with mental illness are full of compassion and emotion.
Many of these images have equal emotion, showing people go through difficult parts of their lives -- divorce, grief, separation, and tornadoes -- as well as some of the ordinary routines. His subjects are sometimes very posed and formal, but mostly they are open, letting their feelings show on their faces. The viewer starts to get the impression of knowing the subjects a bit, especially seeing them at different stages of their lives. Being a long-term project, (currently about 25 years), we see deaths and births, and most strikingly, children growing up.
These are fascinating and powerful images, not just showing people's lives, but likely to provoke strong reactions in the viewer. The cover picture of a large tree branch on top of a house roof and smaller branches all around the yard has its own drama. But most of the pictures of people will challenge the reader's prejudices and sympathies: we see a father who disappears from his families, a mother living in a car with her two young children, people gaining massive amounts of weight, celebrating events in ways that will seem bizarre to most, and so on. Viewers who don't share the same circumstances of those pictured and can't imagine themselves in those circumstances will be tempted to see a freak show, the secret underside of the Midwest. Verene's strong identification helps to reduce this aspect of his work, but it does not eliminate it. Verene's decision to avoid images that provoke strong identification with his subjects is very striking, and leaves one wondering about his reasons. Maybe he just snaps away and assumes that his good-hearted viewers are not judgmental, but that's unlikely -- after all, according to Wikipedia, Verene lives in Brooklyn. So it's more likely that he is wanting to precisely push his viewers to inspect their own reactions and question their judgments -- his close connection with the people he shows inevitably makes any judgmental reaction uncomfortable for the viewer. It's precisely this placement of the viewer in a difficult position that makes these images so engaging, and makes Verene's work stand out from so much politically-conscious photography. I just hope that his next book comes out soon.
© 2011 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York