The Medium Festival
, a four-day photography event with an engaging line up of portfolio reviews and artist lectures, in San Diego brought photographers of all levels together to inspire each other, collaborate and share work. As stated in my earlier article
, I was invited to the festival to review portfolios, an honor and a treat, as a curator who is always looking for new work, innovative ideas, as well as trends and themes in projects. One of the subjects that I saw repeatedly at this review, (and it's a subject that has long fascinated me and never ceases to engage me), is that of family. There were a number of artists who presented their images of family, mostly wonderfully strange or dysfunctional, but sometimes, the photographer would stand back and document them like they were a separate subculture that they weren't necessarily related to. Other times, the artist would direct the photographs, almost like a film set, lighting, arranging, moving, and yet what is revealed is the inner workings of the family dynamic. Regardless of approach, images of one's family transcend mere portraiture. They are often psychological or they lay bare what is not often seen.
As an example, one of the great surprises that appeared before me for a portfolio review in San Diego was Meredith Amadee
. While she is a native of the American Southwest, most of her family is in or from rural Pennsylvania, a landscape of heavy skies, barren trees, winter grass peaking out from melting snow, dirty vinyl siding, oh, and her parents revisiting their home land. Amadee's work, which I curated into a show called Family Matters at the Photo Place Gallery
in Vermont (a great place for calls for entry), features her grandparents and cousins (with cameos by her parents) living in a place that is both foreign and familiar. When you grow up in a desert and then spend various seasons (the lush, green, barefoot summers and the diametrically opposed wet, stark, cold, colorless winter - unless holiday nativity scenes on lawns count for color - and perhaps you can tell that I grew up not too far from this place), the resulting pictures are both investigations into the unknown as well as studies of these people who are related to you, but how can they be? Amadee's work deals with questions about home and displacement and the complicated weight, tension and love that result from faith and family.
Another artist who's work I had seen in various places on-line, but never in person, is Susan Swihart
. I had also juried her work into some shows, but then to see the prints in person was something else. And this is the experience you want to have with photography. When you hold the object in your hands and it's better than it was when you were clicking through them on a screen. Swihart was blessed with identical twins...and what better to do with them before they become teenagers than to photograph them relentlessly. As the mother of twin daughters, she has been observing the phenomenon of their connectedness since birth. As a photographer and participant observer in their lives, she has set out to explore the psychological components, the similarities and differences, of her daughters' union. Their realization that they are seen as one causes many different emotions. At times, they too will see themselves as a unit, but they will also wrestle with finding their own voice, identity and place. It is a complex, but pure love for the person that was created at the same time. Head to toe in the womb. Side by side in life. And Swihart wants to be their witness and chronicle their unique journey into the world of individuals.
And then there was the portfolio walk through on Thursday evening during the Medium Festival. I noticed a crowd of people surrounding one artist's table and elbowed my way through. There stood Leonard Suryajaya
showing his family pictures and these were like nothing I've ever seen before. Recently graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with his MFA in photography, Suryajaya has a lot going on in his pictures, to say the least. His story and his family are complicated. His work explores the intricate layers of selfhood in the context of his cultural background (Chinese raised in Indonesia), intimacy, sexual preference, and personal displacement. The artist works within various constructed and natural settings, directing his parents and boyfriend and family members, to explore narratives and to tell stories. To quote Suryajaya, It is my ambition to use my own confusing background in work that expands the viewer's understanding of identity-both their own, and other's. And in the process, I hope to challenge conflicting conceptions of personal and cultural identities, intimacy, physical boundaries, gender roles, sexuality, queerness and freedom. I was enthralled with the rest of the audience to see his images and to hear his story. Definitely worth having a longer look at this absolutely unique investigation into ideas of family and self.
The dynamics of family, yours and others, is fascinating. Thankfully, many talented artists are documenting every aspect of the journey of life from the beginning until the end, and finding different ways to express the ideas inherent in the word family. My father always said, You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your family. He was right, and yet I imagine none of these artists would trade all the joy, sorrow, pain, tragedy, darkness and light of their own experiences with their families for anyone else's. The history and the weight of our lives make us who we are. Thanks again to the Medium Festival for exposing me to these projects!