Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chris Verene And The Galesburg Series

When I last corresponded with photographer Amy Stein (see our feature on her work here), she suggested that The Art of the Rural also consider the photography of Chris Verene -- a suggestion for which we are very grateful. Ms. Stein interviewed Mr. Varene last year in her blog, and it's an insightful discussion that will interest many of our readers.

As Ms. Stein tell us, Chris Verene is a photographer who--aside from other projects and series--has been taking photographs of his family in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois for the last 27 years. The Galesburg Series does not flinch from the hard social and economic facts of life in Central Illinois. "His approach to depicting his family is tender and humorous and often disturbing," Ms. Stein writes. "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." 

This style, we learn, is meant to evoke a "family album" in an age where such photographic heirlooms are becoming increasingly rare. The images, combined with the handwritten text, puts an extra-familial viewer in a strange position--there's an intimacy, almost a sense of a secreted story to these photographs, yet there is also an inescapable cultural commentary. We are taken in by this intimate and local tone, only to have that impulse defamiliarized by Mr. Verene's brief title-narratives. 

When representing any rural community, but especially when articulating something from the "center" (the city) to the "periphery" (rural place), viewers will rightfully interrogate everything that's implied in the role of the observer. (For instance, consider our coverage of Aaron Huey's work alongside Mary Annette Pember's editorial in The Daily Yonder). Ms. Stein addresses this question head-on in her interview:
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.
Included below are a few photographs from Chris Varene's site; a monograph of this work, Family, has been released by Twin Palms Publishers, complete with 120 pages and 80 full color plates. The images which follow, in their compressed space, offer a hint at how powerful the photographs will appear when printed on a full-color page.

Here's Mr. Verene, also from Amy Stein's interview:
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. 


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