When I first met my wife, twenty years ago, I photographed her repeatedly and obsessively, she was my collaborative photography partner at that point. As time went by she became less willing to collaborate. My daughters grew-up and were also not so keen to help me with my selfish need to have someone to photograph ‘on tap’. That was until my third daughter was born. Now I had someone who was happy to be photographed once again. But for how long?
The idea of the family based photographic collaborator is well established. Harry Callahan had Eleanor, Ralph Eugene Meatyard had his kids, Edward Weston had Tina Modotti, Modotti had Weston, Steiglitz had Georgia O’Keefe, Man Ray had Lee Miller, Emmett Gowin had Edith, Nigel Shafron documented Ruth on the phone, Sally Mann had her family, Diane Arbus had her 42nd Street family, Nan Golden had her extended family of party friends just as Larry Clark had the youth of Tulsa. I could go on but I hope you get my point. Photographers benefit from having a collaborative subject close at hand.
Of course the secret to keeping your partner collaborative is to continually document everyday life, everyday, to the point at which the act of making photographs becomes as mundane as making a cup of tea or coffee. My mistake has always been that I have not done this, and the process of making a portrait of any of my family member has become a negotiation in which I invariably lose out. Either financially or in not having a willing subject.
The family photograph lives in every home as a powerful document of a life lived together, in one house, or community. A treasured possession for future generations to see as a historical document of those barely remembered or never met. In an album or in a frame, the family photograph is the personal historical document we all treasure.
But for the committed photographer the family photograph can take on more importance from both a general historical and aesthetic perspective. The willing collaborator allows the photographer to explore the medium, have fun and experiment, without the requirement to search for a subject. They allow the photographer to go deeper in examining the psyche of those whom they love.
My suggestion therefore is to not let those collaborators slip out of your hands, treasure them as you do the photographs you take of them. Become a photographic diarist and merge into the wallpaper, become a documenter of life rather than a photographer looking for ‘the moment’. Your collaborator may or may not appreciate your commitment at the time, but they will certainly appreciate the images of the past in the future.
Image: Samantha, Paris, 2002 ©Grant Scott .
© Grant Scott 2020
Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.