If all the photographs ever taken were sorted into subject categories, it is probable that the biggest single pile would be that which covered the family.

Ever since Kodak suggested to the general public that “you push the button, we do the rest”, camera owners the world over have seen the importance of immortalising family events.  Christmas; the family holiday; children and their birthday parties; visiting relatives.  These are the photographs that are most treasured.  Intimate, personal, and largely unseen. They are the items most people would claim to miss the most if their homes were burned to the ground.

Indeed, historians have for some time recognised the collective importance of such images, giving a visual narrative to history and changing social moirés.

One area of family photography has however remained largely unexplored, and that is how professional photographers photograph their own families.  How do people who spend their lives taking great photographs relate to their wives, husbands, children, parents and siblings?  Are they aloof?  Are they intimate?  Do they apply the exacting standards of their professional work to the chance shots of the children at play?  Family, a new book from Phaidon sets out to examine this curious relationship.

Subtitled Photographers Photograph Their Families, this is not a commissioned piece, and it is not restricted to current or even recent photographers.  Rather it is a genuine attempt to curate into one body some of the private and intensely personal photographs of 56 photographers from around the world, and throughout the history.

Having recently become a father, I may be more receptive to its charms than others, but Family comes across as a rather wonderful book, to which the word gentle is well suited.  It not only allows a greater insight into the characters of some well known photographers, but compels the reader to re-examine their own approach to portraying their family and friends.

Family, edited by Sophie Spencer-Wood with preface by Henri Peretz, Phaidon 2005. £24.95.   ISBN 0-7148-4402-0

This review was originally written for the Photographic Journal

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