The thing about family photographs is that they are never as simple as they seem. Conventional depictions — a family on the beach, a Thanksgiving dinner, a graduate in cap and gown — serve as evidence of a moment, but can’t begin to tell us the peripheral story of their subjects. The limitations are inherent to photography, a tool of record that limits our view to a fraction of a second. When viewed years later, these photographs bring to mind more memories of time and place, taking us quickly beyond the subject matter at hand. Photographs have the ability to hold more memories than they physically reveal.
Julie Renée Jones, in the portraits that largely make up her series, Umbra, embraces that ability for photographs to hold deeper, untold stories. Her subjects, all close relatives, are part of a contemporary family history that is depicted in small moments, not large, and exist somewhere between truth and imagination. Like memories, her photographs raise questions, and she leaves space for herself and for the viewer to ponder them.
From an early age, Jones examined her own family’s archive of photographs, studying faces and gestures for clues and insight into those who came before her. In high school, she found a box of photographs taken by her father where she was the young subject, and where her role in the pictures went beyond smiling for the camera. She saw in herself, even as a young child, an element of awareness and collaboration in how she addressed the image making process.
Since the beginning of formal portrait photography, the relationship between photographer and sitter has mostly been one-sided. The one “taking” the picture is in command of the technology and situation, with the ability to impose upon their subject what they deemed to be a successful image. Over time, as the mystery and expertise of the craft have diminished, there still remains a deep imbalance inherent in the process. Among non artists, it is maybe only now, in the era of the “selfie,” that both roles can combine under the realm of the same person.
But to Jones, the act of photographing a family member is intentionally collaborative. Where making a portrait of a stranger could be more about capturing likeness or environmental context, photographing those closest to us brings unseen context to the act, with past knowledge and understanding residing just below the surface. Jones sets a starting point and allows the subject to make choices and effect the situation, free to be lost or found, and what results is an unspoken conversation between the two, sometimes appearing comforting and at other times unsettling. There is a lot we as viewers might not understand and maybe that’s true for the participants as well.
A search for the definition of “umbra” reveals that it refers to “the fully shaded inner region of a shadow,” a lovely and intriguing way to think about light and its path. Shadows, in their variation of density and ability to obscure, are like relationships within families. Aspects may be fully in the dark, some partially hidden, and still others in full light. But always a spectrum.
And so light is a key element to Jones’ portraits, often not soft or gentle, but rather hard, pointed and directional. It serves to offer visual clarity, but also could be seen as a means of inspection and investigation. Jones is searching and looking, and the stronger the light, the better.
In my own family archive of pictures, photographs in a great aunt’s album are marred by “X” marks she made next to the faces of family members. At first glance they seem pointless (these are relatives, after all), but also menacing, a harsh blemish to otherwise peaceful photographs. But I’ve come to see her mark making as an act by someone who likely thought about future viewers and clues that could be left: this was my father; this was my sister Yuki.
And that makes me think about how the photographs of Julie Renée Jones may be viewed years from now, by someone studying familial images the way she once did. Jones and her subjects have both left marks for us — records of their connections to each other, to their presence and collaboration. Together they created something that both asked and answered. In this place and time, they were here, they existed.
Kevin J. Miyazaki is an artist, educator and editorial photographer based in Milwaukee. His artwork addresses issues of ethnicity, family history and memory. He has exhibited his work at venues including the Newspace Center for Photography, Rayko Photo Center and Photographic Center Northwest. He was an artist in residence at the Center for Photography at Woodstock (2015) and was included in the Photolucida Critical Mass Top 50 (2016). His editorial clients include The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest and Smithsonian. Miyazaki is a member of the adjunct faculty at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (he also has one of the more enjoyable, non-boilerplate artist bios we’ve ever seen).
If you found this article compelling, please let us know by holding down the cursor on the clapping hands. And please follow Exposure Magazine if you haven’t already!
The above essay has been brought to you by the Society for Photographic Education, as an article published within Exposure, its flagship publication. SPE is a nonprofit membership-based organization that seeks to promote a broader understanding of the medium in all of its forms through teaching and learning, scholarship, conversation and criticism. SPE has Affiliated Chapters with events and conferences in every part of the continental US, with Chapters developing internationally, and has been instrumental in fostering community and career growth among photographers, lens-based artists, educators, students, and the broader community of image makers.
Interested in submitting to Exposure? Read our submission guidelines here.
Find out more about SPE here, or learn about the many benefits of membership here. Join with other thought leaders in the field and add your voice to the direction of the organization. Find out more about the 2019 Annual Conference “The Myths of Photography and the American Dream,” to be held in Cleveland, Ohio.