“The pictures collected here are full of delight and dilemma for the eye and the mind, full of wit and feeling, full of experience. But it would defeat them to claim that they make sense of life,” wrote photo historian Peter Galassi in the catalogue essay for “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort”, an exhibition at MoMA he curated in 1991. The show included a photograph by Susan Kandel, and Galassi’s words read just as well as a comment on her book, At Home, recently published by Stanley Barker. Shot over ten years in Massachusetts, it records family life in all its messy, multifarious glory.
The project started in October 1979, when Kandel went to photograph families who’d gone to see Pope John Paul II visiting the Boston Common; while there she met two women with five children, who told her she should visit them at home because they had younger kids they hadn’t brought along. Eagerly taking them up, Kandel went to their houses, which were around the corner from each other, then sought out other families in the neighbourhood, approaching them in shops and bowling alleys, and offering to give them prints in return for letting her into their homes.
Some of her images include her own family, with her shot of a young girl watching TV in First Communion clothes showing her niece; either way, she was invited back for repeat visits to some homes and, as her project continued, was struck by the sheer variety of narratives she encountered, both between families and within single households. “As I continued in this work, I discovered that each home I entered was a distinct world unto itself,” she writes in the introduction to At Home. “And each home offered up stories — or suggestions of stories.”
Families, by definition, include more than one person, and many of Mandel’s images show more than one individual; there’s often an obvious focal point, but there’s also a very strong sense that each family member has their own thing going on, whether they’re fully visible or off in another room, reflected in a mirror, or bursting out of the frame. If they’re not physically there, they’re suggested by knickknacks and belongings, by the home furnishings and Catholic icons, by the family photos on the wall, or by their half-drunk cup on the table. Kandel has said she liked these homes because the interiors were so busy, because, unlike the house she grew up in, evidence of other people was left lying around, giving an intimate glimpse into their lives and enthusiasms.
Ideally families are supportive, letting each member have a place rather than allowing one individual to dominate; in Kandel’s images, various perspectives have space to breathe. It also doesn’t feel like she’s imposing her own view, trying to tell a particular story or shape one narrative or another. The girl whose photograph is on the front cover looks back at Kandel, quizzical, as if a thought-bubble might read “What the?!” Kandel’s photographs are full of delight and experience, as Galassi wrote of the MoMA show; “it would defeat them to claim that they make sense of life”.
By Diane Smyth
Diane Smyth is a freelance writer based in London, who works with photographers and with publications such as The Guardian, FOAM and The British Journal of Photography. She edited at the BJP for 15 years. Diane has also curated exhibitions for The Photographers’ Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. Her instagram is @dismy.
Susan Kandel, At Home, published by STANLEY/BARKER, £38 / €44. Available here.