When his father passed away last year, California-born photographer Glen Erler decided to bring his Family Tree project to a close. Based in London for nearly two decades, over the past eight years Erler returned home regularly, using the time to capture his family and their surroundings on film, and the results of this exploration now comprises his first monograph.
“I usually had limited amounts of time to get the shots I wanted” Erler explains. “There was always a sense of urgency because I would have to deal with various environmental or personal factors, but I think that helped because it made me more focused. I didn’t have the luxury of lingering around.”
The project started with Erler taking photographs of his cousin, who had been a soldier in Vietnam. “I realised that my cousin’s experience had changed him forever,” he explains. “He’s a recluse and has never been married. He had been in love with a woman before joining the military, and he was a very good-looking guy, but he came out somebody completely different after the war.”
"Ultimately, it's the family circle we partake in from birth until death" — Glen Erier
The next photos Erler took were of his aunt, at the house where her daughter had died of AIDS, as well as of the tree in the front yard that had been planted in memoriam. “They are a very Christian family, so to have my cousin die this way in her 40s, it changed her mother forever. Of course these things happen to all of us – maybe someone out there has lived a charmed life but sooner or later something happens to change our personality, or the way we look at things.” Not just lingering on the forlorn or the funereal, Erler’s photos also capture moments of joy, and the emotional content of each image is difficult to summarise, as is so often the case in everyday life.
While the photos rely solely on the natural light available, and depict settings and objects that are to hand, Erler says that each one is the result of careful consideration. “I’m not a snapshot kind of guy,” he explains. “Once in a while I’ll see something while it’s happening, but my work is usually thought out first and orchestrated while I’m shooting.” This tension between the natural and the formal has the effect of giving the photographer a very real presence at each scene; though he remains unseen, his intention and his connection to his subjects can be felt in each captured moment.
“Not much has changed there since I was a kid,” Erler says of his childhood home. “The feeling and the light and the heat. But now there are new generations coming through, and there have been a few events that shook the leaves off the trees so to speak. There are so many things we take for granted and ultimately, it's this circle we partake in from birth until death. Family Tree covers this journey in many ways for me. Ultimately, I hope people look at the photos and think about their own families.”
Glen Erler: Family Tree is available now from Kehrer Verlag Heidelberg.
Text by Ananda Pellerin