'Photobiograhy' is a history of a person’s life through photography which by it’s very nature
is extremely personal & lays bare the person’s achievements, failures and emotions. It’s so important to feel a personal connection with your audience & vice versa because it is almost like an unspoken dialogue between the two ,leading to possible recognition of not being alone with your feelings or experience. The camera is a quick convenient tool to quickly capture moments & convey differing emotions depending on the composition, filter & colour. Snapshots of life passing too quickly can be immortalised for all to experience.
My Immediate Family, Sally Mann
My Immediate Family is a photography book produced in 1992 by Sally Mann who is one of my favourite photographers in this field. The book was published by the international quarterly journal Aperture and is made of 65 duotone portraits.
The book features exclusively Mann’s three children, Virginia, Jessie, and Emmett, who are also on the book’s front cover.
Some of the pictures show nudity & whilst this may be seen as controversial the main thought streams are of freedom, innocence & being comfortable in your own skin without a facade or mask to hide you from the world. It depicts total acceptance of the self without outside validation.
Also shown were three show minor injuries, Jessie with a cut and stitches, Emmett with a nosebleed, and Jessie with a black eye. To any parents or caregivers out there they will recognise these things are a normal occurrence in the everyday life of the child who is full of enthusiasm for life regardless of any risks.
This encapsulates the unrestricted exuberance of youth which we pass up too soon. Critics were quick to accuse Mann of sexualising her children, instead seeking to understand the true meaning of celebrating the boundless innocence free from being judged.
A group called ‘Save the Children’ even organised a book burning, and this one (Immediate Family) was reflected in a pornography trial. At the time, the artist said, "I think childhood sexuality is an oxymoron."
Something unusual about Sally Mann’s Immediate Family is that unlike many series of portrait pictures, hers were shot in landscape format, using an 8 X 10 view camera.
The photographs weren’t studio shots but more intimate romantic images of her children doing everyday activities which are relatable to everyone. It strikes me they were photographed to capture & freeze a moment in time that was just too beautiful to slip away unnoticed.
Mann spent on average about nine months a year printing the photos of her family, which symbolically means she dedicated as much time carefully producing the portraits of her children as she did to deliver each of her actual children. She used her bare hands and arms to dodge and burn as well as to craft and shape each portrait, similar to how she crafted and shaped hers and her children’s childhood.
My Immediate Family, Sally Mann
Some her infamous work is photographs of her daughter holding a cigarette.
The composition of this image is such that the viewers eyes are drawn to the girl in white . Whilst the white dress is symbolic of innocence she is engaged in an activity is is restricted to adulthood. The little girl besides her is demonstrating grown up behaviours also with her hands on her hips & turning her back possibly demonstrating her disapproval.
Whilst the girls are the main focal point of the image the boy in the back looks much further away from them on stilts . This could be a progression to an older stage of life which feels more precarious, vulnerable & unknown in contrast to the self assured stature of the girls who demonstrate the reassurance of youth.
I feel that Sally Mann is an important photographer in this field as her subjects of childhood, sexuality & death are conversational points & stages we all have to travel through.
Ray's a Laugh, Richard Billingham
Richard Billingham is another of my favourite artists using the medium of photobiography featuring mainly on his home life. He was born in 1970 in Birmingham & grew up in a cramped, high-rise tenement apartment with his mother and father.
It wasn’t an easy life for him living with an alcoholic father & violent mother but when his mother moved out he bought his first camera on credit & began taking photographs of his father. At first he was painting his father & began to take photographs of him to improve his painting & set up the room for his photographs exactly the same as the paintings.
He spent a lot of time taking the photos as it was expensive to develop the film.
He was studying an art foundation course at Bournville College whilst supporting himself working nights at a local supermarket. He then went on to study at the University of Sunderland whereupon a tutor discovered the photos of the over exposed details of the lives of Ray & Liz.
In place of normal , jolly family photographs , Billingham's images are real, uncomfortable often humorous but these were his subjects. There is such integrity in his work & a lot of unspoken love tinged with frustration & sadness. What shines through the most is that although on first impression it is a very sad existence, on reflection Ray & Liz were deeply troubled humans & that my dear is what we need to remember. The feel of intimacy in the pictures using a 35mm film can take us all back to the pre digital era when you just took the shot & hoped for the best. There was no tweaking or retaking so you have to admire the understated genius of his work & the fact that he was offered a place at University on the strength of his images.
Ray's a Laugh, Richard Billingham
In 1996 he released a photography book, Ray’s A Laugh, where he reveals the Cradley Heath council estate lifestyle of his alcoholic father Ray and jigsaw-obsessed mother Liz. He wanted to unveil the image of working-class, housing estate stereotypes to create a real life depiction of his own flawed but ultimately humane family life as it existed in the harsh reality of Britain at the time.
He later went on to win the illustrious Deutsche Börse Prize in 1997 and was shortlisted for the 2001 Turner Prize. Billingham is now making his first to directing his first feature-length film, Ray & Liz.
The filming is under way at the moment with Ray & Liz set to be an unapologetic and moving piece of British cinema.
Never underestimate the power of resilience & unspoken love.