There is a plurality that paces this insistent and evolving series of photographs. Over 26 years, Chris Verene has returned to the area and to his extended family for long spells, making work that draws on the attrition of domestic life. His work has become extensive and mature, noting the dependencies and support networks that grow amongst the vulnerable, the single and aging at the edges of such communities. Yet alongside such personalities, there is a sense that this work speaks to an understanding of a wider America. Galesburg, once home of the noted poet Carl Sandburg – who travelled across the country collecting the ballads, songs and folklore of ordinary people – has on several recent occasions been mentioned by President Obama, not least in his 2010 state of the Union address. As a town fraught with the upturns and downturns of blue-collar labour, it has become a motif for the uncertainties of the current economy. It’s a town America somehow knows, one populated by families that can be recognised often, across the modest conurbations that cover the country. At once, Verene’s book is a discreet, local archaeology – shaped by the chances, crises and uncertainties that cause families to prosper, grow or fail – and a body of work that might speak of the wider condition of working-class America.
This book sits heavy in the lap, it’s oversized and boldly coloured, with photographs holding a deep tobacco-stained warmth that occasionally taints skies and often stains the interiors of family homes. Verene’s photographs are large on the page with a modest half-inch border that keeps us close to the details, to the ephemera and cluttered disarray of how family life is lived. From the incidental decorations that mark Christmas in the Galesburg night to the precious frailty of new life, Verene works across the landscape of the region and in the heart of the home, making photographs that successfully relate the depth of his understanding of both. There is a sense of disclosure in the way the book works and the true condition behind the seemingly nonchalant gestures we witness is often only confirmed by Verene’s hand-written captions. We find ourselves in a position of privileged observation – witnessing ‘the last time’ another separating family meets, for example. We’re over the threshold in rooms where we brush against the predicaments at the outset of a young child’s life.
Whatever the wind has blown into this town, there is acceptance and resilience rather than resignation, but rarely comfort. Occasionally photographs hint at this domestic disquiet, of the need to clear up and continue after storms have passed, whilst other pictures are simply stark and unsettling. Late in the book, a baby, Lexus, lies flat on a bare mattress in a bare room. Beyond the child’s raised rose-red feet, all is cream and brown, all is modest… functional. A TV remote and baby’s soother, simple tokens of short-term comfort are near her, just beyond the reach of the baby’s tiny right fist.
The captions that extend each photograph are integral to the photographer’s working process. In all but a couple of the pictures, handwritten text sits at the head or foot of each picture, attributing names or offering an indication of the circumstances of those shown, bringing us closer. The style and tone is consistent. This is not collaboration in the way that, for example, Jim Goldberg’s work might be considered, in which the subjects often write supplementary comments in their own hand. If there is collaboration here it’s perhaps in the invitation extended from Verene’s subjects to photograph with open access and the clear acceptance of those he is close to. The pen used to write, and the commentary itself, remains with the photographer. A mother and her children are photographed in a car – a car, we learn, that has become the family’s home after personal circumstances turned for the worst. These are the events that happen away from the camera – the unsettling disputes, the marriages that begin or decline, the suspicion of pregnancy or the necessary dissolving of one domestic situation for the initiation of another. When cousin Steve and his daughter are photographed in a McDonald’s, harsh flashlight adds abrupt shadows to the restaurant walls behind them. The very act of photography hints at the unplanned, the incidental and uncertain and conspires to add to the sense of discomfort. The photograph was made shortly after Steve’s wife, the child’s mother, had left the family home. Immediately, after reading the text, the picture is firmly attached to a troubling and haunting hinterland, whilst a second photograph – across the page in this book – shows a domestic interior, built on the symmetry of a husband and wife’s inscribed chairs. Reading around this photograph, as it is underscored with the note from Verene, we realise that the photographer has recorded the last time that Steve would ever see his children, as they are lost to him in the aggravated settlement of divorce.
The book is structured through such vignettes, small series of photographs that relate the routines of Verene’s extended circle. There is the growing maturity of the young man Travis, for example – who seems shadowed by animals and darkness both as a child and at 17. There are the celebrations, the turning of years, as children prepare for the first day of the school year or are swung around their gardens in the abandon of uncomplicated and exhilarating play.
Just as there is bad weather in these photographs, Verene draws upon other seasons, as families negotiate what curator Peter Galassi – when developing a MoMA show of the same name – once called ‘the pleasures and terrors of domestic comfort’. The work is ambitious and varied in its range. For all the drama and uncertainty that the photographer foregrounds, the book grows towards a more subtle and deeply refined marking of his subjects lives. Whilst there is a stylistic reference to Larry Fink’s Social Graces series of the Sabatine family in the 1970s and 1980s, there is something more involved in this work, rendering any thought of opportunism or more flippant comparisons fruitless. By incorporating textual narratives that take us wider than the immediate circumstances photographed, Verene is presumably conscious of the recent layered personal histories evident in Mitch Epstein’s Family Business (2003), and of course the earlier and formative Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home (1992), both bodies of work that attempted to approach the implicit complexities of family through the photo-book’s very construction.
Coming to publication nearly two decades after Sultan, Chris Verene’s book is an emerging but convincing contribution. When he says, in the affirmative essay that offers his own understanding of his work, “I am present in the pictures”, it’s clear that he is. He is close enough to follow Amber and her young family from the heart of the storm – when all is lost and the children are taken from her – to the moment they are returned to her as she re-settles in a new home. She is photographed at the end of the book, quietly studying the way a deck of cards have fallen for her. Exceptionally, there is no text bordering this particular photograph and the future itself, of course, is unwritten. The final storm of winter seems to have breathed its last breath… for this year, at least.