The little family drama’s of Dick Blau

Essay written for the online exhibition of Dick Blau at the VASA Project, December 2015.

“We were living in Buffalo. She was standing at the bathroom sink. I was leaning on the door frame and playing with my new camera. Then Heide turned to me with a look so fraught that I simply had to make a picture. The image pulsated in front and inside of me.”

These are the opening lines in Thicker Than Water – My Family in Photographs by Dick Blau. There is a self-portrait of a young Blau before them, as is the year – it’s 1968. The next image is of course of Heide, with that intense look on her face that prompted Blau to make the photograph. But before heading deeper into the work, into the images and the narrative their sequence unfolds, it is important to re-read each sentence in that quote, one by one, as they speak volumes about family photography, this peculiar genre filled with complex emotions, contradictions and ambiguity, but also about how Blau approaches it. It sets a certain framework for what’s to come.

© Dick Blau

In these lines Blau sets the scene and the context for the narrative that is about to start, a story that begins with a young couple living together in a city – which could be any city. Blau also speaks of we and not they, making it very clear from the beginning that he is both the storyteller and a character in the story he is telling. If there already was a slight hint of domestic life in the first line, the second line takes away all doubt, immediately showing that what will follow is not only going on between the four walls of a home, or a room – as most of the photographs in this body of work do – but that it is also intimate by its nature, as the bathroom is indeed a very private space. This story is about certain parts of life that most of us do not generally share with the public.

The photograph of Heide in the bathroom is a snapshot, as in it wasn’t staged. Blau was in a casual state of being – leaning on the door frame – and it was sheer coincidence that at that moment he had a camera in his hand. If it wasn’t a new camera and if he wasn’t eager to play around with its functions, who knows, the picture would have probably never existed. A lucky accident, as photographs occasionally and so generously can be. But one that set forth a compelling series of portraits.
The photograph of Heide is also a snapshot in that it was made quickly, without thinking, in a sudden reaction to the situation at hand – “I simply had to make a picture”, Blau writes. And although not all images shown here are snapshots in the truest meaning of the word, they are made within the snapshot aesthetic. They are, or they look like, as Peter Galassi calls them in The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort: “casual records of everyday life”. Further on in the book Galassi shows why, next to the portrait, the snapshot plays such an important role in family photography in terms of how they are read and how they provide meaning to the reader. “Perhaps the most ubiquitous of all photographs, snapshots are also the most hermetic. To the insider, to the member of the family, snapshots are keys that open reservoirs of memories and feeling. To the outsider, who does not recognize the faces or knows the stories, they are forever opaque. At the same time, because we all have snapshots of our own, and thus know the habit of understanding them, we are all equipped to imagine ourselves into the snapshots of others, into the dramas and passions they conceal.”

For Blau these concealed dramas and passions are not just what fascinate him – in art and in life, they are also what brought him to photography in the first place. In the late sixties Blau was working in theatre, directing plays. Dissatisfied with the photographs of his productions, he decided to photograph them himself, only to discover that the problem didn’t lie with the photographs, but with the productions. At the same time that he was trying to photograph the stage, he also started using the camera in his home. “Here,” Blau once said in an interview, “the images I made of my life and its dramas were much richer, more ambiguous, and emotionally compelling. So I gave up the theater, became a photographer, and dedicated myself to the study of unrehearsed expression.”

Blau, however, never really gave up the theater. Instead, he allowed the rules of the theater and formal characteristics of the stage to slide into his domestic photography. In other words, Blau recognizes a scene pregnant with drama when he sees one. Usually they are subtle scenes where it takes the viewer some time to discover and understand what is going on in the frame, how the characters are interacting with each other and what that says about their relationships. “Thicker Than Water is a kind of chamber theater,” Blau once wrote to me. “One that starts in Strindberg and ends in Chekhov.” Like Strindberg’s plays The Father, Miss Julie, and The Creditors, Blau’s family work is a cultural reflection on the conflict between the sexes and the father-mother-child triade – his snapshot style bearing resemblance to the naturalistic drama techniques used by Strindberg. What does it mean to be a husband and a wife? How do evolving social and cultural conventions and patterns continuously shape and change our views on this institution called marriage? How does a child affect the relationship between a woman and a man? How can a father ever compete with a mother? And like Chekhov, Blau uses these little snippets of life to investigate the human condition or, in his own words, “the larger conversation underway in culture – about how we live over time in the institutionele of the family, about the complicated space of feeling we call domestic.”

As a result, in Thicker Than Water Blau’s main and continued question seems to be: what is my part – as a man, as a partner, as a father? Three parts Blau plays in the family narrative, each one in some way represented by a self-portrait in the book. The first one is Blau as a young man, wearing a turtleneck and looking confidently – perhaps, even somewhat cocky – into his own lens, as if to say: bring on this story that will be my life. The second self-portrait shows Blau bent and knocked out. His relationship with Heide is over, his first attempt at having a family has failed. Life, as it goes, throws some mean punches. In between these two self-portraits, unfolds what can be considered as the first chapter in Thicker Than Water – or better: the prologue. The narrative is at once pulsating and fragmented, as if Blau is trying over and over again to find out what happened, where things went wrong. There are the portraits of Heide, which have a somewhat unsettling quality to them, emphasized by Blau’s tight, vertical framing. The odd one in the series is the one where she is pregnant. A child is on the way, things have shifted somewhat, suddenly there is an overtness. Anna is born. And then, oddly enough, we skip a few years, to a series of photographs showing Anna, roaming about in what seems like a haunting fairytale – an almost fictional world. It’s a prelude to the end. Blau photographs them sleeping together in the sun, looking both peaceful and sensual. It’s a silent goodbye. The next image shows Heide looking at Dick, holding her head in her hands, throwing the proverbial towel in the ring. You can almost hear her think: what is the use, photography won’t save us. Next comes the main story, the story of Dick and Jane, a narrative that spans an incredible 25 years. Boy meets girl and there is passion. The rest is life as it unfolds, it becomes a second shot at the life of a family. And this time, as Blau reassures us in the book, “things went better.”

© Dick Blau

© Dick Blau

Oscar Wilde once wrote: “The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal. Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion. We reject the burden of their memory, and have anodynes against them. But the little things, the things of no moment, remain with us. In some tiny ivory cell the brain stores the most delicate, and the most fleeting impressions.” In many ways, the same goes for Thicker Than Water. Blau photographs the great events: the birth of his son Max and his daughter Ruby, the wedding of his daughter Anna, who is still a big part of his new life. They are the images we recognize and that strike us as being what they are: important milestones in life. But because we recognize them so immediately and so well, they don’t linger. As Wilde suggests, it’s the images in between, the images of no moment, that store the most meaning. But they are slow-releasing images.

Since we are not part of Blau’s family, nor are we familiar with their daily routines, domestic or otherwise, we really don’t know what their individual relationships are like or how the family dynamics work. (And in the end, we don’t really want to know, for it might ruin the mystery of this work.) Instead, there are clues for us to interpret, clues that work best in the frames where the scene presented is like a still from a theatre play or a movie and where both position and posture of the characters speaks volumes. Like the one where the family is at the river, Max on the left, looking somewhat uneasy over his shoulder, while Anna is breastfeeding the newborn and her husband is bent over them. Jane is sitting in the back. Or the one at home, where Jane is wearing a nightgown and talking to Max who looks like he’s ready to leave the house for something important. And then there is Ruby on the left of the domestic stage, looking and listening in. Still, and this remains of the upmost importance, what we get is strictly Blau’s point of view. To paraphrase him from the opening quote: these are images that pulsate in front and inside of him, causing him to push the shutter button. The subtitle of the work is My family in photographshis family, in his photographs. Something Blau emphasizes by regularly allowing a reflection of himself to be seen in the image.

There are the images of his son Max, where the boy looks away from his father or where he looks down at him from above with a certain stare that will return throughout the years, as Max gets older. They suggest a difficult relationship between father and son. There is an Oedipal feeling floating through those images, a feeling that is confirmed by the charged photograph of Max and Jane laying across from each other in the sofa, both naked in what seems like an airless and sultry atmosphere. An image that is repeated – or better: copied – further on in the book, almost as an inside joke, a humorous way of putting whatever odd meaning one might give to the first photograph in perspective.

There is Ruby, his daughter and on top of things the youngest. As often the case with daughters, they are and remain a mystery to their fathers. The series of Ruby as a teenager, wearing different outfits, shows both Blau’s amusement at and his sympathy for the elusive phenomenon that is the teenage girl. “I could see both Ruby’s anxieties and aspirations as she literally tried on different roles,” Blau told me about these images. “And I was both impressed and delighted by the way she could express all this in her choice of costume and gesture.”

© Dick Blau

© Dick Blau

And then there is Jane, his partner – both in life and photography. She is not only a subject of his photographs and a leading actor in the narrative, she is also an engaged collaborator in this work, finding these photographs and their parental gaze just as fascinating as he does, albeit from a different point of view, a view that is both female, maternal, and academic. She not only undergoes the scrutiny of his lens at each given moment of their lives, she also understands where these images are coming from. As a Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, she has not only written books and essays that were accompanied by Blau’s photographs, she has also written a book about living with his camera – taking on both Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and Susan Sontag’s On Photography along the way – quite fittingly entitled Living With His Camera.

The academic analysis, however, always comes in hindsight. Living with Blau’s camera must have had those moments – and photographs are about the moment – where it was much more frustrating than interesting for her to see him reach for his camera. Blau’s intimate photographs of Jane show her at her most sensual, but also at her most vulnerable – and everything in between. Some are quite unflattering, others might seem rather ruthless – nobody really wants to be photographed in a hospital bed. Some portraits suggest that she has had enough of the camera. In others you can read Blau’s admiration for her. In all of them you can feel the mutual trust.

In The All of It, the opening essay to Family, a book of family photographs by Lee Friedlander published by Fraenkel Gallery in 2004, Maria Friedlander writes: “A book of pictures doesn’t tell the whole story, so as a biography this one is incomplete. There are no photographs of arguments and disagreements, of the times when we were rude, impatient, and insensitive parents, of frustration, of anger strong enough to consider dissolving the marriage. Lee’s camera couldn’t record our family dysfunctions.” If there are obvious resemblances to be found between Friedlander and Blau in their family work, this aspect however is the main and crucial difference. Blau’s images are brutally honest. And while most people would never consider picking up a camera to document a conflict within a family or a relationship – at least not one they belong to – Blau has done just that on many occasions. “… it is conflict and not communion that I care about,” Blau once explained to me. “In my approach to the family, you might say that I am the anti-Friedlander.” In another conversation we had, he elaborated on the subject: “Generally, even amongst the intelligentsia, you find pictures full of smiles, where everyone is trying their best to prove to themselves and to their significant others that it’s all working out splendidly. This ignores, of course, that 50% of marriages end in divorce, and that the relation between parents and children is often quite fraught.”

Returning to Maria Friedlander’s essay one last time, here is what she wrote about a photograph in which she is topless, leaning against a wall, in a square of hard light and with Lee’s strong shadow glooming over her own figure: “When Richard B. Woodward wrote on Lee in the November 1989 Artnews, he referred to a photograph from 1970, taken in a Las Vegas motel room of me standing in a block of light against a dark wall, with Lee’s shadow imposed on my body. For him the picture read ‘as…a portrait of a marriage in which [Lee’s] photography has overshadowed both their lives.’ In a way, all of these photographs, not just that one, were formed because photography did indeed overshadow all four of our lives.”

Blau’s honesty in his pictures at times might seem inappropriate or even cruel. However it derives from the amount of detachment necessary to keep this work both accessible and relevant to the viewer. It is also what makes this work as close to being truthful as photography can be. “I don’t make a great distinction between the rational and the emotional”, Blau once wrote me. “In fact, I would say that in my work I want the two to contaminate one another. Not only do I learn something from allowing this to happen, but – particularly since very complicated feelings and projections come into play – I don’t believe the subject can be explored in any other way. The real issue is to try to be as intellectually honest and as emotionally undefended as you can bear to be. For me this means being as self-aware as I can, open to questioning my assumptions – and earnestly maintaining access to what can be an unruly and often upsetting intuition.” So above all, it’s what makes this work sincere and heartfelt.

As far as I know and have seen, Dick Blau has never made any overshadowing photographs – metaphorically speaking, that is. I doubt he ever will.

© Dick Blau

© Dick Blau