© Chris Verene, 2007
I’ve been familiar with Chris Verene’s photographs since I started graduate school at the School of Visual Arts in 2006. Chris was a critique teacher there, and although I never had the chance to study with him I was always curious about his highly saturated, unsettling and poignant images of his extended family. Chris has been photographing his relatives in Galesburg, Illinois for 26 years. His approach to depicting his family is tender and humorous and often disturbing. His style is distinctive; marked by his use of fill flash, a square film format and the addition of neatly handlettered text surrounding the image.
His exhibition, Family, is currently showing at Postmasters Gallery in Chelsea until October 16. Last week I had a chance to see the show, which features over 41 images densely packed into two large rooms, and to browse the handsome new book of the same name published by Twin Palms. I asked Chris if he would be up for a quick interview. I was very happy when he agreed.
AMY STEIN: I’m interested in your relationship with your family. In particular with the members of your extended family in your images. Are you close? How do you deal with the distance that comes with the repeated act of photographing your family, of placing yourself in the role of observer. Or does the act of photographing them bring you closer?
CHRIS VERENE: I'm very close with my family, pictured and not pictured. As an only child, I clung to my cousins like siblings, and we still are very connected. I do not work as an 'observer,' that is your job as the audience. I am relating the stories from their source, our family, town, and neighbors out to the world at large. I think that the act of photographing makes me close with only the people who really enjoy the photography-- the people who time and again ask for pictures, and compel me to tell those stories.
© Chris Verene, 2002
AS: Your images are accompanied by handwritten text, which gives them context and deepens the narrative of the series. It also mimics the conventions of the family photo album, which is almost extinct. Can you talk about the role of text in your work?
CV: The text is like signing your name on a letter or document. It's one's own writing, and it guarantees that one stands behind what is written. I struggle with the writing every time-- it is hard to do, very permanent, and must be done on every single piece throughout my history. It is the best I can do, but often looks imperfect. It also probably keeps me outside of some curatorial worlds, it's perhaps too weird, too personal, too off-beat in a cool Chelsea world of photo --filled with the slick conceptual object-photos of Roe Ethridge, Oliver Boberg, Sarah Charlesworth, Gursky, etc.
The handwritten text is a rule-- I almost always do it, and I can't escape my thoughts. One key to understanding the text is that it's usually like you said, Amy, it's like a family album-- it tells us why a picture was taken at that exact moment, it tells what was thought to be the story's end at that moment or other key fact that was in our minds when I came to make a picture.
AS: I read somewhere that you were inspired by Arbus. For me your work is reminiscent of photographers who explore family and rural life Nick Wapplington, Shelby Lee Adams and Larry Fink. Can you talk about some of your photographic inspirations?
CV: Well, Arbus was a book I took out of my parents' locked bookshelf at elementary school age. Waplington has not been an influence, but it was encouraging to see that people worldwide accepted him as an artist. Shelby Lee Adams is an influence, as is Emmet Gowin, and Larry was my teacher for 5 great days at a workshop. He's a GREAT teacher, and I like his rule wherein any level of student can study with him, even beginners. I'd say that Nan Goldin's work was not an influence, but when I saw her book in a store (my first exposure to her) I was amazed that people would accept such snapshots as art-- it encouraged me to know that the language of a small flash camera and everyday moments were high art, because that's what I was already doing in the 1980's.
© Chris Verene, 2005
AS: Some of your images comment directly on the diminishing choices of people living in smaller, economically challenged communities like Galesburg. For example, your cousin Cindy and her husband lost their jobs when the Maytag local factory closed down. There was a time in our country where you could comment about economic hardship without it seeming like an overtly political statement. Today, in this hyper-polarized climate that's harder to do. Did you intend these images to be overtly political?
CV: Naw, it's just a sad fact. I am a documentary artist, so I just have facts to show. The North American Free Trade Agreement meant that Maytag could make their fridges about 10 feet across the Mexican border, and make so much more money, because the people in Mexico will work for a lot less money, and the safety restrictions are very shallow across the border--which also is good for corporations' profits. For Candi and Craig, who both worked at the factory, it meant a carefully balanced life of two working parents with young children was dumped quickly for corporate cash. Galesburg workers were suicidal. Their pensions were dumped, their dreams wasted. My grandfather was cheated out of his railroad pension through similar corporate tricks. It's not politics, it's corporate greed and shifty accounting. I could go on-- my cousin worked for Wal-Mart for 20 years and still has no benefits, they keep scheduling her for 38 hours per week-- she's 'freelance'-- but when Wal-Mart started to carry groceries, she was forced to sign a non-compete clause, which meant she had to quit her other job bagging groceries-- because that breaks the non-compete clause... I could go on...
© Chris Verene, 2004
AS: I knew your Family series was a long term project, but I had no idea that you had been photographing for 26 years. That sort of long term commitment and relationship to your subject reminds me of Doug Dubois, who’s also photographed his family for decades.
CV: Yes, Doug is a good friend of mine, but his pictures are elaborately staged theater, which he makes to look effortless. I much prefer Doug's personal family theater to Crewdson's theater of actors.
© Chris Verene, 2007
AS: What are the challenges and rewards of focusing on one subject for such an extended period of time?
CV: Well, it's all I know. I don't really know what it would be to do someone else's family, or some other such story. I have photographed some special people on assignment for magazines, for example I did a Newsweek cover story on men with Chronic Depression. That's just a few hours with a person.
© Chris Verene, 2006
AS: You’re an educator as well and an artist. Can you talk about balancing those two aspects of your career?
CV: The balance part is just a matter of putting enough hours in the day!! I do love teaching at State University/Westchester Community College-- it's great, and the students are often from a very socially and/or economically disadvantaged background. it is similar to my time spent with teenagers in Galesburg.
© Chris Verene, 2006
AS: What, ultimately, would you like us you understand about family and place by looking at your images?
CV: Ahhh- I don't know what to say! I do hope people will spend some time looking at 50 or more pictures and really look at it before they go too far on their own. I also think reading my essay and my father's essay in the new book are required reading to understand the work.