What do we know about people? Not much. We might go to the post office, say, but we might never know (and how could we?) that the friendly clerk behind the counter is a barely functioning individual who lives in a cluttered, small room in his parents’ house, leaving it only to go to work. That friendly, slightly nosy man next door might be a tyrant at home, caught up in a decade-long power struggle with his passive-aggressive wife. Family secrets are family secrets, and what happens behind the closed doors of people’s homes usually stays there (even the stuff people post on Facebook usually has not much, if anything, to do with their actual lives).
Even photography projects about family are often carefully considered, staged illusions. Stories. Constructs. Larry Sultan’s dad’s reminder that his photograph was just that (“Any time you show that picture you tell people that that’s not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up and nowhere to go, depressed. That’s you sitting on the bed, and I am happy to help you with the project, but let’s get things straight here.”) made it all the way into the photographer’s obituary. Try as you might, as a photographer you can’t run away from the fiction; and you can never open the doors of your home wide to have people from the outside peek in.
But you might as well try regardless. Leonie Hampton’s In the Shadow of Things is a recent, most welcome, addition to the growing number of photography books about family. The book combines the photographer’s images with vernacular family ones, the latter laid out in a different way, thus preventing whatever confusion might have arisen (to, one might add, a fairly careless viewer). In addition, there is text, a lot of it, at the end of the book, transcripts of recorded family conversations.
The mother (whose words are set off from everybody else’s using bold face) turns out as the focal point of this family. There is a hoarding problem, a problem caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I imagine it would have been easy to produce a book showing rooms filled with things, at least for an outsider. But things are never that simple when you’re an insider, a family member; and regardless, what is gained from only showing that anyway? Instead, the book presents the lives of the various family members in pictures, often wonderful pictures.
Of all the books dealing with family, In the Shadow of Things might have the most beautiful photographs, photographs that, I want to think, show the photographer being the closest to the subject matter (as should be obvious, my only basis for writing this is looking at the photographs with my own eyes; whether this is in fact true is up for debate, a debate that, we should note, ultimately would be unresolvable). Mind you, this is not necessarily what I expect of such a book - quite on the contrary. But at the end of the day, I am not that interested in this particular family, people I have never met and probably never will, but in the human condition. And that human condition has been exposed in the most wonderful way, without sentimentality, without too much forced grittiness, and also without too much trained fine-art detachment. Quite the feat! Highly recommended.
In the Shadow of Things, photography by Leonie Hampton, 184 pages, Contrasto, 2011