Photographer Chris Verene’s new monograph, Family, is out now on Twin Palms Publishers. Family is the latest chapter in Verene’s photo-documentation of his family and friends in the city of Galesburg, Illinois.
Verene was born in Galesburg in 1969 and as a teenager started taking
pictures of his family, friends, and neighbors. This experience was
rewarding, allowing Verene to document the lives of those closest to him
and to capture the passage of time. These might sound like the aims of
any casual photographer, but what makes Verene different is not only his
artistic sensibility, but his commitment to documenting the truth,
which can often be sad or difficult. He has continued taking these
pictures for almost three decades, creating a record of births, deaths,
weddings, divorces, and everyday life in Galesburg, a rather
unapologetic city with a population just over 34,000.
Though Verene no longer lives in Galesburg, he returns regularly with camera in hand to catch up with the people that appear in the photos year after year. Family is a sort of narrative (all of Verene’s work is, really) and opens with the divorce of his cousin Candi. Candi, whose wedding was featured on the cover of Verene’s first book ten years ago, has since gone through many changes – both she and her ex husband were fired during a Maytag factory closing and soon after divorced. She has two children that she is looking after, and a new boyfriend. We learn more about Candi’s life in the book, as well as the lives of other friends and family going through their own changes.
All of the photographs are accompanied by handwritten text – things like “THE SAME DAY THEY SIGNED THE DIVORCE PAPERS A TORNADO HIT THE HOUSE” and “THE PREGNANCY TEST.” In plain language, Verene creates a sort of what-you-see-is-what-you-get contract with the viewer. Verene is aware that text like this can either help or hurt, enhancing or compromising the reading of the work. For his purpose though, it satisfies an objective; the authenticity of the photographs is communicated – these aren’t supercilious vanity shots. As a documentary photographer, Verene is inherently concerned with authenticity – not only for his own benefit, but for that of the subjects involved. The subjects, who Verene says are proud of the photographs, place their lives in front of the camera without pretense – the ups and downs neither embellished nor obscured. We owe it to them to believe.
With this type of photography the question of voyeurism naturally comes into play. But Verene is an insider here – these are his people – and his personal interest and respect translates. He is aware that the images will elicit different responses, and that sometimes people will laugh – he’s OK with that. Humor, Verene says, is important in dealing with the struggles that are a natural part of life. The photographs ultimately exist not only as art objects, but as a tribute to the people that he loves and their spirit in the face of hardship. The fact that they are popular – widely exhibited and published – seems almost incidental.Chris Verene: Family
80 Four-color Plates
Published Summer 2010