by Christie Reed
As students pass through the bottom floor of Miller Hall they notice the walls of the Irene Carlson Gallery adorned with a new entourage of photographs. But there is something very different about this display that requires passersby to take a second glance.
Entitled “Family Portraits,” this series of 30, 11-by-14 inch black and white photographs does not fit into the category of traditionally posed, well-lit, professional studio photography. Instead, each photograph portrays a single family in their home environment, with the family members determining both their stance and facial expressions.
“There is a random quality in the series, since the poses and locations are chosen by the subjects,” said Gary Colby, associate professor of photography at ULV.
Each photograph tells a story, literally. Beneath every family portrait there are remarks written by the family members, and according to the photographer of the newest display, Tracy Lee Taylor, “The comments are fun to read because they [family members] were not given any directions on what they were supposed to write about.”
If they did need guidance, Taylor asked them to “tell about the people in the family. How do they get along? How do they behave? What makes their family different than others?”
A long-time elementary school teacher and photographer, Taylor first tried this unusual style of photography in 1989, while teaching a third grade class at Kingsley Elementary in Montclair.
Taylor was first exposed to the “picture- story” idea when she read the photography book “Rich and Poor” by Jim Goldberg. He took photographs of rich and poor families and then asked for comments from them immediately following. He printed these remarks beneath each photo, providing Taylor with a starting point for her series.
Her initial set of about 25 portraits was put on display at Cal Poly Pomona in October 1990, and this in itself was inspiring.
Since this was such a phenomenal experience for Taylor, she decided to relive the experience one more time last year as the thesis project for her Master’s Degree in Education from Cal Poly.
Teaching at Vineyard Elementary School in Ontario, Taylor began to offer the idea to selected students and parents in her classes.
Yet the motivation to do “Family Portraits” was not for her the project alone.
“I did it partly for my class, partly due to a project I saw and mostly to eliminate my biases as a teacher.”
Being a teacher for nearly 10 years, Taylor said she began blaming home life and parenting for the success and failure of many of her students, which she decided was neither fair nor accurate.
“A lot of times it is more like parents and teachers work against each other rather than together,” she said. “This project provided me with the opportunity to get to know parents and see that there is no ‘bad’ family.”
The project was successful in eliminating Taylor’s biases and created a real relationship between teacher and student and teacher and parent.
“It was a nice change from meeting parents once a year at conference time and never seeing them again,” said Taylor.
The participating students had different reactions to their teacher coming over to their house.
“Just like in every classroom there are some students who think ‘Yeah, my teacher’s coming over to my house’ and others who think ‘Oh no, what is she going to tell my parents,’” said Taylor.
Once Taylor was in the households, the families had very strong reactions to her presence. Some immediately got into the process and took advantage of the opportunity to take a creative family portrait. Other families tended to shy away from the camera before they became comfortable. This made each shoot “a memorable experience.”
“The show was a difficult one to mount, since they are not pure photographs,” said Colby. “The copy is essential in getting the meaning of the entire installation.”
Beneath each mounted photo in the gallery, there is posted the original copy of the stories and remarks by family members.
The writing reveals the most about the family, and there are obvious differences between the stories by young children and the statements given by the parents, but all is vitally important in understanding the intent behind Taylor’s project.
The 30 photographs on display are a combination of both her 1989 and 1994 projects and reflect nearly two years of non-stop time and effort.
Taylor is excited about her work, which will be on display through Friday, April 21.
Since the families are Taylor’s personal friends, they were all sent a copy of their family portrait and an invitation to the opening reception that was held in the gallery last night.
“Family Portraits” was not an individual effort. It required a lot of work on the part of the families to find the time to meet together, allow time for the photo shoot and write the stories. But for all involved it was worthwhile.
Family- a. All the members of a household under one roof. b. A group of persons sharing common ancestry. (p. 659)
Portrait- a. A likeness of a person that is created by a painter or photographer. b. A verbal picture or description, especially of a person.(p. 1412)
If these definitions from the “American Heritage Dictionary, Third Edition,” truly encompass the meanings of these two words, Taylor has epitomized the family portrait forever.