Using Your Family As Photo Subjects

What Do You Dream About?

A generous On Taking Pictures listener gifted me a copy of Sally Mann’s Immediate Family for our gift exchange during the holidays, and it has me thinking about family photos. As a parent, family photography came naturally. Is there a better way to capture your kids growing up?

Unless you’re a parent, a lot of this won’t be clear. But for those parents out there, you instinctively know how important family photography is.

In her memoir, Hold Still (which is a great read, by the way – give me a memoir over an autobiography any day) Mann tells her photography students:

Photograph what is important to you, what is closest to you, photograph the great events of your life, and let your photography live with your reality.

“Your reality” could include dreams, or emotions, or flowers by a big window. For parents, “what is closest” is often our children, especially at first. And what is photography if not to capture something before its gone?

Photographing the family has a few side benefits. For one, it’s just good practice. Think about shooting something every day, week after week. and then add in that you have a readily-available subject who more or less cooperates. Want to try out a new technique? Want to test a new piece of gear? Need to sketch out an idea? “C’mere, kiddo. Stand here.”

Second, while I love a good snapshot, I love making art with my family even more. I put feelings into the photos I make of my family, and that lends them a greater weight. Maybe they don’t mean anything to the casual observer. And maybe the kids, themselves, will look back and wonder why I made such a fuss. But with my family photos, I’m the audience (okay, maybe the grandparents, too).

Can I show someone that I love them by taking their photo? I believe so. That’s the ultimate reason I photograph my family. All you need is love, as John Lennon sang. It’s the ultimate personal project.

So now, I look for examples of good family photos, a genre I would never had been interested if it weren’t for exploring image making with my own kids. If I get the same sense of fondness and artistic expression – artists living with their reality, as Mann says – then the photographer has succeeded.