Dissatisfied with the dearth of photographs depicting his family and the unique (and at times “troubling”) relationships that define it, photographer Daniel Coburn picked up his camera and created this series that, in his words, acts as a “potent amendment to the idealized family album assembled by my family members.”
To wit, Coburn doesn’t shy away from turning his lens towards moments of vulnerability, awkwardness, or pain. But the striking black-and-white images in his series “The Hereditary Estate” are an interesting mix: they are both intimate and distant—some of the photographs indicate a closeness, a familial attachment that is evident from the outside.
Strangely, though, the series also includes a set of images where it seems that the photographer is straining to understand, to make a connection. The figures in these shots are physically farther away, sure, but there’s also a palpable thickness in the air between us and them. This feeling coagulates into an emotional wall that distances us from these people. The strength of “The Hereditary Estate” is partly found in its ability to embody both feelings of intimate closeness as well as distance—a contradiction present in every family.
Even without any prior knowledge of the series, viewers feel that something is amiss—a shadow creeps around the edges of the exchanges and interactions that Coburn captured on film. “I made these photographs in order to examine the family photo album’s role as a visual infrastructure that supports the ideology of the American Dream,” he says. “As I became an adult, my parents began to reveal details of a dark family history—the evidence of which had been removed and hidden away in the corners of our family sanctuary.”
Although the specific details of this “dark family history” are never revealed, Coburn’s piercing portraits of his family members create their own quiet narrative of personal conflict. But by keeping all of these secrets and stories untold, Coburn’s images remain respectful, giving their subjects space when needed, and delving deeper as allowed. “I made these images in an attempt to honor our relationships and remain true to our history,” Coburn says. His series is an embodiment of these desires: an honest portrait of family dynamics and complexities as well as a tender document of Coburn’s relationships.
Coburn was a finalist in this year’s Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture.
If you’re interested in seeing more work like this, we’d recommend the following features: This is Not Your Family, Matt Eich’s exploration of the “American condition” and his family; Fault Line, a series that explores the hidden imperfections and deep-rooted support inherent in every family; and Sauna: Requiem from the North, a poetic series shot in one of Sweden’s remote archipelagos.