A Non-traditional approach to Family Portraits

Here are a number of photographers who’s work has taken a less traditional view of family portraiture. I originally titled this post ‘Non-traditional Family Portraits’, but following an observation by my tutor I decided to change it to the above title. My initial title would suggest that the families are non-traditional, which isn’t necessarily the case. My intention however, was to say that the photographers’ approach to family portraiture isn’t traditional.

Richard Billingham

Richard Billingham’s series, Ray’s a Laugh, brought him to the attention of the art world in 1996. The series documents the everyday life of his mother and alcoholic father in their West Midland tower block flat, which he shares with them and his brother and various animals. Shot with a cheap camera, using harsh flash and processed in a local chemist shop, Billingham’s images appear raw and candid, revealing a harshness to his parents existence close to the poverty line. Although unsentimental, the series isn’t without it’s moments of warmth and humour. Billingham only began using a camera in order to obtain source material for his painting, as his father wouldn’t sit still for very long while being painted.

Billingham’s images of his family are what most people would prefer to hide or destroy rather than have viewed by outsiders. There were mixed feelings among critics, with some viewing the series as a social commentary or an expression of resentment by those dependent on the state, while others simple enjoyed it ascetically. The series doesn’t particularly appeal to me, however I do like how Billingham contrasts the brutal arguments with more tender moments where his parents vulnerabilities are exposed. I feel the inclusion of so many animals within the confines of the relatively small council flat create a strong sense of claustrophobia across the series.

Sally Mann

Mann is an American photographer who is best known for her series of photographs entitled, Immediate Family, which was first exhibited in 1990. The series of 65 Black and white photographs feature Mann’s three children, all under ten years of age, playing and swimming nude. While I know the photographs fall into the sphere of art, I still felt uncomfortable viewing them. Sadly, I live in a world where everyday the newspapers report on cases of child abuse. Mann was heavily criticized for the series, and although I believe her intentions were to show the freedom and innocence of childhood, I can’t help but feel that she neglected her protective role as a parent and exploited her children.

Elinor Carucci

Elinor Carucci is a photographer who intimately and honestly documents the good, and indeed more challenging moments in her life and family relationships. The series, Mother, was shot over a decade, and focuses on Carucci as she comes to terms with the changes to her life and body as she goes through pregnancy and motherhood. Her series, Closer, examines her relationship with various members of her family, as well their relationships with each other. Many of the images feature a warts and all view of Carucci life. The viewer is exposed to extreme close-up shots of Carucci’s c-section scar complete with surgical sutures or the plucking of a hair from her nipple. Carucci appears in various stages of undress alongside different members of her family. I wonder whether the series title, Closer, is based on the extreme close-up portraiture or the overly-close family relationships.

Charlotte cotton describes Carucci’s work as having “a conscious pairing down of details, such as dress and mise-en-scène, that would date or overly particularize a photograph. This approach keeps the symbolic and non-specific reading of their depiction of their personal relationships to the fore”. While I agree with what Cotton has to say on the matter, I find the notion of sitting around naked with ones parents a little unwholesome.

Tierney Gearon

Tierney Gearon’s work is based around a bright color palette and mainly features her friends and family. She first came to prominence when The Saatchi Gallery exhibited her work as part of the exhibition, I Am a Camera. The exhibition was surrounded in controversy following complaints from members of the public about two large prints of Gearon’s naked children, including one of her son urinating. The Metropolitan Police visited the gallery, interviewing Tierney Gearon and the gallery owner. Although no action was taken by the police, the incident did raise the issue of child protection in the media. Gearon defends herself in The Guardian newspaper, “I find it hard to fathom why the police have picked on these particular shots in this particular exhibition. Sally Mann’s portraits of her daughter, for example, are far more sexualised than mine. My pictures are about a captured moment, rather than about the person. They are about a feeling, and to that extent they preserve my children’s anonymity“.

Most parents, including my own, have perfectly innocent photographs of their children naked in the bath or on the beach. I can’t agree with the use of such photographs for commercial gain or career advancement. That said, I find Gearon’s bright and highly saturated style works very well when contrasted against the sombre subject of her mother’s struggle with mental illness. The Mother Project features images taken on visits by Gearon and her children to their ill grandmother. Gearon describes how taking the images helped her to deal with the challenges she faced throughout her mothers illness. “I select moments to switch into ‘camera mode.’ And when I look back on a lot of these images, I feel most of them are self-portraits of my soul. Being around my mother is such a painful and happy experience. I tried to take the best of my mom and apply it to the way I look at life. These are not photos of a woman who is ill, but of a relationship between a mother and a daughter — two artists. This work is how I transfer my feeling into art to process pain and frustration.

Larry Sultan

American photographer Larry Sultan spent about a decade during the Regan era photographing his parents, which resulted in the exhibition and book entitled, Pictures From Home. Sultan combined family snapshots, reproduced stills from home movies and memorabilia from his fathers career, along with various candid and staged photographs of his parents. Sultan’s series creates an intimate portrait of his family, focusing primarily on the relationship between his mother and father, while also revealing the relationship Sultan has with his parents. “This portrait of the home evokes the critical issues of aging, disparity, wealth, relationships, real estate and ubiquitous family values, and conveys the conventional cliché benchmarks that define postwar American nuclear families: birth of children, financial security, corporate success, as well as the need for a life outside the home” (Merriah Lamb 2006/2007).

One of my favourite photographs from Sultan’s series, is where his mother poses for him against a wall, while his father watches baseball on the television with his back to the camera. This image has been described by Gerry Badger as “one of the most painful photographs ever made about the nature of marriage” (2007 p188.).

Out of the five photographers I wrote about here, Larry Sultan’s work has the greatest appeal for me. I like how his bright colourful images often contrast with the seriousness of his parents’ expressions. Sultan seems to use a vibrant palette to built a facade, which he then begins to dismantle with the careful placement and direction of his parents.


Angier, R. (2011) ‘Roswell Angier on Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home’, AmericanSuburbX  [online], 31 October, available: http://www.americansuburbx.com/2011/10/roswell-angier-roswell-angier-on-larry-sultan-pictures-from-home-2006.html [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

AnOther (2011) ‘Richard Billingham’ [online], available: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/1124/richard-billingham [accessed29 Feb 2016].

Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography: How photography has changed our lives, London: Quadrille.

Bright, S. (2010) Auto Focus. The Self-Portrait in Contemporary Photography.  London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Carucci, E. (2016) Elinor Carucci [online], available: http://www.elinorcarucci.com/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Cotton, C. (2009) the photograph as contemporary art, new ed. London: Thames & Hudson.

Fifty One (2016) ‘Elinor Carucci’ [online], available: http://www.gallery51.com/index.php?navigatieid=9&fotograafid=29 [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Gagosian Gallery (2016) ‘Sally Mann’ [online], available: http://www.gagosian.com/artists/sally-mann [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Gearon, T. (2001) ‘Where is the Sex?’, The Guardian [online], available: http://www.theguardian.com/society/2001/mar/13/childprotection [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Gearon, T. (2016) ‘Tierney Gearon’ [online], available: http://www.tierneygearon.com/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Lamb, M. (2007) ‘Reconstructing Family: Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home’, Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History [online], Vol III, available: http://cujah.org/past-volumes/volume-iii/essay-12-volume-3/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Mann, S. (2015) ‘Sally Mann’ [online], available: http://sallymann.com/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Saatchi Gallery (2016) ‘Richard Billingham’ [online], available: http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/richard_billingham.htm [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Sultan, L. (2016) Larry Sultan [online], available: http://larrysultan.com/gallery/pictures-from-home/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

The Artifice (2016) ‘The Controversial Art of Sally Mann’ [online], available: http://the-artifice.com/the-controversial-art-of-sally-mann/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Utata Tribal Photography (2016) ‘Richard Billingham’ [online], available: http://www.utata.org/sundaysalon/richard-billingham/ [accessed 29 Feb 2016].

Warner Marien, M. (2010) Photography: A Cultural History, 3rd ed., London: Laurence King.

Woodward, R.B. (2015) ‘The Disturbing Photography of Sally Mann’, The New York Times Magazine , [online], 16 April, available: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/magazine/the-disturbing-photography-of-sally-mann.html?_r=1 [accessed 29 Feb 2016].


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: