email page print pageAll Topic Reviews
1000 Families2 ¼32 Stories365 Days51 Months5x7A Child's Life and Other StoriesA Couple of Ways of Doing SomethingA Lifetime of SecretsA Storybook LifeA Treasury of Victorian MurderActing OutAddiction and ArtAEIOUAfter PhotographyAliveAlive with Alzheimer'sAlone Together POCAltered StatesAmazing WomenAmelia's WorldAmerica at HomeAmerican AlphabetsAmnesiaAn American LensAn Exact MindAngel's WorldAngry Youth Comix #2Anjos ProibidosAnthony GoicoleaArchitecture of AuthorityArt After Conceptual ArtArt and HomosexualityArt and PhotographyArt in Three DimensionsArt Photography NowArt, Self and KnowledgeArt/PornAs We AreAsylumAttitudeAutoportraitBecoming Edvard MunchBeg the QuestionBelugaBerkoBig Rabbit's Bad MoodBill HensonBlab!Blab! 13BLAB! Vol. 14BLAB! Vol. 15BlanketsBoneyardBoneyardBoy StoriesBreakdownsBright EarthBrüselBurn, Bitchy, BurnBus OdysseyBut Is It Art?CanvasCaricatureChildrenChris VereneChristy ReportCinema PanopticumClass PicturesClick DoubleclickCloserClumsyClyde Fans CoincidencesComing of AgeComing of Age in Ancient GreeceConceptual Art and PaintingConfessions of a Cereal EaterConsider LoveCouch FictionCrumpleCzech EdenCzech Photographic Avant-Garde, 1918-1948Dan & LarryDargerDays With My FatherDead EndDear MomDeus Ex MachinaDigital DiariesDirty StoriesDisasters of WarDixie RoadDomestic VacationsDon't Go Where I Can't FollowDon't You Feel BetterDr. Jekyll & Mr. HydeDrawingsDriftlessEarly ExposuresEcstasyEdouard VuillardEnduring CreationEngland, My EnglandEntering GermanyEpilepticErwin OlafEscape from "Special"EVAEverything Will DisappearEvidenceExploring the Self through PhotographyExposureExpressionism Exquisite CorpseFamilyFamilyFamily LifeFandomaniaFaster than a Speeding BulletFictionsFigure and GroundFragile DVDFred the ClownFreud at WorkFridaFrom Girls to GrrlzFun HomeGeneration DadaGirl CultureGirls, Some Boys and Other CookiesGoing Into TownGood-ByeGraphic WomenGrave MattersGreat Hiking Trails of the WorldH R GigerHans BellmerHappy Halloween, Li'L SantaHauntedHere Is New YorkHey, Wait...High Art LiteHollywood CowboyHouse of JavaI Am Not This BodyI Love You But I've Chosen RockI Thought I Could FlyI'll Be Your MirrorI'm CrazyIllumineIn My Darkest HourIn Search Of DignityIn the Floyd ArchivesIn the Line of DutyInformation ArtsIntenseInvisible No MoreIt Was A Dark And Silly NightJack Cole and Plastic ManJimmy CorriganJock SturgesJock SturgesJust Between UsKafkaKatharina SieverdingLacan at the SceneLaura Numeroff's 10-Step Guide to Living with Your MonsterLife's a BitchLight in the Dark RoomLine of Beauty and GraceListening to CementLittle LitLi’l SantaLoadsLooking For MayaLost GirlLouis FaurerLouise BourgeoisLove and DesireLove Lust DesireLuckyManufactured LandscapesMass ObservationMaster BreastsMetacreationMisty DawnMnemosyneMomeMona KuhnMy Brain is Hanging Upside DownMy DepressionMy Family AlbumNatural BeautiesNatural BeautyNerveNerveNew and Used BLAB!New York September 11Night FisherNightswimmingNo More ShavesNot My ShameNotes from a DefeatistNothing ObviousNothing to HideNudes and PortraitsOliviaOlivia Saves the CircusOn City StreetsOne EyeOnly a Promise of HappinessOptic NerveOptic Nerve #11Optic Nerve #9Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & PiratesOutsider ArtOutsider Art and Art TherapyPanic at Toad HallPatrolPaul M. SmithPeculiaPeekPeople Love PhotosPerfect ExamplePersepolisPhilosophersPhonesexPhoto ArtPhoto Icons I (1827-1926)Photographers, Writers, and the American ScenePhotography and LiteraturePhotography and PhilosophyPhotography and SciencePhotography and the USA Photography RebornPicturing DisabilityPlaytimePOPismPortraits of ResiliencePostmodernismPsychedelicQuestions without answersRaptors Raw YouthRay's a LaughRazmatazReclining NudeRed SnowRemembering GeorgyRequisite DistanceRineke DijkstraRippleRobert Doisneau 1912-1994Robert MaxwellRoom to PlaySame Difference & Other StoriesSanctumSatan's Sex BookSatellitesSchizophreniaSee Me Feel MeSelf-Taught and Outsider ArtSexSexual ArtSexyBookShadow ChamberSidewalk StoriesSkin DeepSleepwalkSmall FavorsSmile of the BuddhaSpectral EvidenceSpentSshhhh!Stranded in CantonStrange Stories for Strange Kids Stranger PassingStripped BareSummer BlondeSurrealismSymbols in ArtTestimonyThe Aesthetics of DisengagementThe AlcoholicThe Art InstinctThe Art of Adolf WolfliThe Art of MedicineThe BabiesThe Birthday RiotsThe Blue Day BookThe Blue NotebookThe BodyThe Body as ProtestThe Boulevard of Broken DreamsThe Breast BookThe Breathing FieldThe Bristol Board JungleThe Clouds AboveThe Devil and Daniel JohnstonThe Diary of a Teenage GirlThe Education of SophieThe Erotic Lives of WomenThe Face in the LensThe Illustrated Story of OThe Incantations of Daniel JohnstonThe Madonna of the FutureThe Mirror of LoveThe New Erotic PhotographyThe New LifeThe Other PlaceThe PervertThe Philosophy of Andy WarholThe Places We LiveThe Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious BrainThe Push Man and Other StoriesThe Scar of VisibilityThe September 11 Photo ProjectThe Shiniest JewelThe Speed AbaterThe Steerage and Alfred StieglitzThe Story of Frog Belly Rat BoneThe Story of SexThe Stuff of LifeThe Three ParadoxesThe Transformations of GwenThe Transformations of GwenThe Transparent CityThe TravelersThe ValleyThe Van Gogh BluesThe Wolves in the WallsThe Yellow HouseThinThings as They AreThinking of YouTierney GearonTime and SilenceTina's MouthTits, Ass, and Real EstateTransitionTrauma and Documentary Photography of the FSATravelersTropical BlendTwentieth Century EightballTwilightUnlikelyVagina WarriorsVernacular VisionariesVietnam At PeaceVisual CultureVitamin PhWar Is Only Half the StoryWhat Are You Looking At?What Art IsWhat Good Are the Arts?What Remains: The Life and Work of Sally MannWho Am I, What Am I, Where Am I?William KentridgeWillie DohertyWithWriters on ArtistsYoung PhotographerZip Zip My Brain Harts
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