Christmas is hard to photograph
I’ve been doing an Instagram takeover for Photobook Melbourne (@photobookmelbourne for those on the app) this week from my folks’ home in central Illinois, and I’ve learned a couple things:
1. Instagram takeovers are stressful. At least for a guy who’s never done any sort of assignment work, never had to produce images with any sort of timeliness. It’s just Instagram, but still you want it to be good when you’re representing someone else.
2. Christmas pictures are hard. This is a re-learning, actually. I wanted to do a few seasonal images for the Instagram; to not do so would deny the way things look around here right now. So, naturally, I gave it a go.
Holidays provide a natural attraction for photographers: subject matter that’s only around 1/12 of the year or so. But it’s very difficult to not be ironic – in the bad, condescending way – about Christmas sights. They’re sort of naturally sad, like when a nativity figure tips over or secular and religious figures clash in strange (and sometimes wondrous) ways. I see the sadness, and love the sadness, and yet I don’t want to mock the genuine inspiration that motivates someone to decorate a yard or a business or a town square.
This got me to thinking about some of the photographers who’ve gotten the holidays right, in various ways.
Lee Friedlander gets at the sadness in the right way, as he gets every picture right in the Friedlander way: by contextualizing the Christmas image in the complex visual fragmentation that is his M.O. And perhaps contextualize is the wrong word; is it a decontextualizing? A knitting of the incongruous holiday image back into the regular old visual clutter? Either way, a set of his seasonal photographs was shown at Janet Borden a few years back, and it was a delight.
Gerry Johannson does Christmas pictures the other way, by isolating the subject matter and giving it a modest grandeur that seems to me the only way to pull it off if that’s the way you’re gonna do it. His lovely little book of compiled Christmas cards, God Jul & Gott Nytt Ar, is well worth a look.
Chris Verene gets at the sadness through people, as he does in photographs made all year long; the pressure of holiday cheer only adds extra tension to his pictures. It’s like we want the people in his pictures to be happy in the same way that we want our own families and selves to be happy. And yet there’s that controlled distance in Verene’s photographs; we see that indeed each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.