The family has been an infinite well of inspiration for photographers for as long as the medium has existed. From Larry Sultan’s Pictures From Home to LaToya Ruby Frazier’s The Notion of Family, the family unit has proved a conduit for explorations of belonging, identity, strife, place, connection, injustice and more. Photographers have both worked behind the camera and stepped into the frame in order to capture the most universal of subjects, the complications and connections to those we love.
In Diana Markosian’s series Santa Barbara, a story that at first blush feels almost pulled from a movie, family—and the difficult, sometimes incomprehensible decisions made for it—are put on full display. In photographs and a film, the project deals with her family’s journey from post-Soviet Russia to America. In 1996 Markosian’s mother Svetlana, inspired by the American soap opera Santa Barbara that her family watched in Russia, placed an ad in search of a man who could help her and her children immigrate to the US. Awoken in the middle of the night, the children were informed they were going on a trip. The next day they arrived in California and their new American lives began. Markosian, in relating the story, notes how surreal this experience was to her and her family.
It was Mark Twain who wrote, “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” In Santa Barbara, which takes the form of a book published by Aperture, an exhibition currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and one at the International Center of Photography that opens in September, Markosian depicts her family’s journey through a hybrid lens of restaged photographs, archival family images, a script, and a film. In exploring her own family’s near larger-than-life story, Markosian committed herself to an all encompassing artistic journey, rife with challenges both mental and emotional.
The importance of text and found imagery in some of the early work would be a stepping stone to the experimentation and expansiveness of Santa Barbara. “There was nothing more terrifying to me than the feeling that I was on autopilot,” she says. “I think this project came at the right moment where it allowed me to play in a way that I’d never done before. It allowed me to feel and experience things so intimately, in a way that with journalism and documentary, you’re always a step removed, there’s always a distance that you need to respect.”
The balancing act of distance is deeply woven into the project. In digging through the past—both hers and her mother’s—the project speaks to pain as well as love. The work is slippery, hard to truly categorize, much the way recollection is. There is a heightened drama to many of the images; flashes of a stage set, the soft focus and punchy color of nineties film on others. Photographs used for the casting of actors, behind-the-scenes tableaux and lush, cinematic vistas complicate the project and highlight Markosian’s multifaceted role within it. This isn’t a straightforward documentary project but rather an epic that takes in multiple locations and countries, trauma and risk, familial love, dreams, disappointment, and sacrifice.
It was only when starting the work that Markosian realized she needed more than images to make sense of this story: she needed a script. The soap opera that her mother had watched, set in the sunshine and glamour of California, seemed the place to start. She returned to the source and collaborated on the script with Lynda Myles, the original screenwriter of Santa Barbara. Both the book and the exhibition contain parts of the script, but on set what was happening was not scripted. What occurred was far more palpable—an experience both being lived and re-lived. In the film’s trailer, various actresses speak of Svetlana and their understanding of her decisions, her courage, her desire for more for herself and her children.
The photographs are poignant, difficult, mysterious, and glamorous. Moving between quiet intimacies and dramatic moments, the influence of the allure and illusion of California and American life is felt throughout. From the start, the journey is depicted by images that feature both the everyday and the fantastic; the reality of the hardships and loneliness of immigration juxtaposed against the fiction of America.
With a nod to the surreal, an image titled The Arrival depicts a red carpet leading the eye to the family standing in what appears to be the desert. There is a noir quality to First Day At Work, the bright sunlight adding a frisson of danger to the palm trees shadows. In Lifeline, a bright red telephone sits upon a chipped surface as if a beacon in a storm. What comes across in these photographs is the true immersive quality of the work. At the project’s iteration at ICP, viewers will be able to walk into the sets themselves, breaking the fourth wall, seeing the process itself come to life.
In recreating scenes from her family’s experience, Markosian takes on the role of director, working from her mother’s perspective. “This project is a personal journey to understand my mom. It’s a reenactment, a reconstruction, a retelling of one moment in my family’s life that changed everyone’s life,” she notes. A photographer is in many ways directing images but the role and responsibility of the director goes deeper here. In casting the series, Markosian was casting her family. On the process of finding an actress to play her mother, she explains, “I needed to find somebody who would allow me to understand my mother… and I suddenly started seeing my mom’s decisions not as negative, but rather just as things that she went through, I started to see her as a woman, because the actress who played her, Ani, treated her as a woman. And it became less personal.”
Yet as viewers, we are given an intimate look into Markosian’s processing of the events. A personal story becomes even more close when seen in full sight, from multiple angles. The myriad men auditioning to play her stepfather are photographed on a blue backdrop, the stepfather appears again in the scene of the wedding, and in the clip of film in which Svetlana’s first impression of him registers on her face. Markosian’s mother, Svetlana, is rendered with depth and empathy, a testament to Markosian’s ability to inhabit her various roles as artist, director, and daughter. “The responsibility I had as a director was so important. I think my past work has always been so solitary that this specific project felt very different. I was responsible for a cast, a crew, and a story that wasn’t my own. It was my family’s and I didn’t take that lightly. I felt emotional as I was making it, but that was so private. I needed to be there for this entire cast as a director—not as a daughter.”
When asked how her family reacted to the work Markosian quotes her grandmother who asked her, “Diana, it was so hard to live this once, why would you choose to relive this?” It is easy to run from the past, far harder to stop and look it square in the eye, but if there is one thing that Markosian has learned as an artist, it is that you “always want to keep pushing yourself. And I think when you enter this area of film and storytelling that feels even grander than what was in your head, it’s really hard to go back. And I think that’s the challenge for me moving forward. What am I doing? What am I doing next? Because I’ve entered a place of no return, whatever is ahead, cannot be what was behind.”
Editor’s note: Diana Markosian: Santa Barbara is on view at SFMOMA from July 3 – December 12, 2021 and at the International Center of Photography from Sep 24, 2021 – Jan 10, 2022. Santa Barbara was published as a book in 2020 by Aperture.