Perched on a red tricycle, Atlas Anderson welcomes the reader with a tearful grimace. His hands, gripping the handlebars, still have baby dimples, but his body is already that of a little boy. This shot — an overt homage to William Eggleston’s tricycle — was already the opening image of the first edition of Son, published by Kehrer in 2013, and almost immediately out of print. This second edition, released by Stanley/Barker just last August, already appears to be sold out on the publisher’s website. “I had thought for a long time about what form this new edition would take, because, of course, I’ve been taking pictures of my son all along,” explained Christopher Anderson. “I wanted to make a facsimile of the first book, but I also thought it would be interesting to bring it up to date, to see how much this project had grown and evolved.”
The 2013 book chronicled the first two years of Atlas’s life, but, more importantly, offered a reflection on fatherhood. It featured photos of the photographer’s father, who was then battling cancer. Christopher Anderson thus appears as both father and son.
As beautiful, sweet, and meticulously composed as they are, these images of the intimate sphere of the Magnum photographer were not originally intended to appear in book form. “When my son was born, I started taking pictures, not as a photographer, but as any father would. It wasn’t until two years later that I realized that not only was this indeed part of my ‘work,’ but that everything I did before was done in preparation for these photos.” The idea for the book and the layout quickly followed. This first edition constitutes the opening chapter of the 2021 version. Christopher Anderson even went back to the original files in order to preserve as far as possible the “naïve immediacy” which he had managed to instill in Son. This is followed by a second chapter made up of about forty new images, where the toddler turns into an active and independent boy. Christopher Anderson’s lens does more than capture Atlas’s growth and the changes in their family. “Looking back at the book, which I hadn’t done in years, I was struck by how much I myself had grown, how much I had developed as a photographer.”
Unlike family albums, this is not a chronology of major milestones in Atlas’s life. Rather, the book offers an impressionistic fresco of daily life: games, vacations, and studious sessions alternate with still lifes. Sometimes we encounter Christopher Anderson himself, although Marion, his wife, and Pia, his daughter, are more present. The latter is the protagonist of her own eponymous book, published last year, and which has influenced the new edition of Son as much as it was its continuity. “We decided to adopt the same format and design as Pia so that they could live side by side. Who knows, maybe this is a collection that will continue to grow? It could one day do a book about my wife, another about Pia, about our dog… It’s a dynamic work, constantly evolving,” Christopher Anderson noted half-jokingly. The two books available as a boxed set called Archive. Framed in similar formats, photographed by the same person in the same places, despite their obvious physical resemblance, the brother and sister give off a different energy.
“Their characters are very distinct, as are the books. Neither is meant to say, ‘Look, here are some cute pictures of my kids!’ Pia questions the photographic medium and the nature of the relationship between photographer and subject. My daughter has a strong character, and the shots I take of her are a collaboration between the two of us. Sometimes I don’t even know whether she’s performing because she’s having fun playing a role, whether she’s making fun of me, or giving me something because she feels sorry for me and wants to help. In some of the photos, it is me who marvels at this creature with a will of her own and personality is nothing like mine. The book is about an interaction that is not just between a father and a daughter. The first part of Son is about a man who discovers himself by becoming a father; it talks about how I understood the relationship I had with my own father through my relationship with my son. It also speaks of the periods in life and of life and death — simple, self-evident themes. The second half links up with Pia: it’s not just me discovering something about myself, but rather it’s about the pleasure I get from watching Atlas come into his own. In that sense, Son is more about observing.”
But that’s not to say that Atlas wasn’t involved in the design in which he is the protagonist. The father and the son worked together on this edition, the young boy suggesting some shots and vetoing others. The final product resulting from this collaboration is infused with the happiness of sun-drenched holidays and the warmth of the loved ones. It stirs the memories of the quiet confidence children possess only to lose it as they become teenagers. The closing shot of the book is a visual metaphor for children’s inexorable entry into adulthood: seen from behind, Atlas is walking alone down the street, straight into the sunset.
By Laure Etienne
Laure Etienne is a Paris-based journalist and former member of the editorial team at Polka and ARTE.
Son, Stanley/Barker, 160 pages, £40. Out of print on the publisher’s website.
Pia, Stanley/Barker, 160 pp. Out of print on the publisher’s website.
Archive, box set containing Son and Pia, Stanley/Barker. Limited edition of 150 copies, £250.