“I hope my family sees how much they’ve meant to me,” says photographer Tealia Ellis Ritter, as her sprawling new book The Model Family is released
Growing up in the 80s, American photographer Tealia Ellis Ritter was surrounded by art: her mother was a painter and sculptor, her father an avid amateur photographer who loved snapping pictures of the family. Every now and then, he would organise a slideshow to share the new work.
“It was such a vivid and visceral experience in my young life of sitting in the dark seeing these big projections of our family in wonderfully saturated colours,” Ellis Ritter tells AnOther. “It made things feel important, and it also made it feel like this is what you do: you photograph your family. That’s just what happens.”
At the age of six, Ellis Ritter received an SLR camera from her father and immediately put it to use, taking pictures of her family in their countryside home. “When my sister, who is six years younger than me, was one or two years old, I’d put a silly hat and makeup on her, set her out in front of the camera, and see what happened. It was a way of being creative and having fun,” she remembers.
As a teen, Ellis Ritter began to dream of being an artist. “That would be the most amazing career you could have, but I didn’t think it was actually possible to do that so I went to school for psychology,” she says. But things did not go as planned, and in 1999 she enrolled in Columbia College in Chicago to pursue her dream of becoming a photographer.
Although Ellis Ritter had been continuously photographing her family since she was a child, she didn’t consider that work her “art.” “I put those photos aside to do my ‘real work’ – going home with random people I would meet and photographing them with a 4x5 camera in their own spaces,” she says.
Two decades later, while photographing her six-year-old son, Ellis Ritter had a moment of recognition. “I realised my son was the same age that my sister was when I started photographing her regularly,” she says. Motivated to look back through her archive for the first time, Ellis Ritter stepped into the darkroom with newfound purpose.
On February 10, Ellis Ritter will release The Model Family (Loose Joints), a story of love, loss, trauma, and joy that confronts the ambiguity of photography and its relationship to memory and identity. Eschewing the rose-coloured glasses approach to the past, Ellis Ritter confronts the difficulties of life with compassion and grace. Here we see life as it’s lived, with all its attendant challenges and rewards – the pain of conflict, divorce, and death intermingling with the pleasures of marriage, children, and familial bonds.
“One of the most profound things to come out of making these photographs is that you have to trust and respect each other,” Ellis Ritter says. “I have an intimate knowledge of my family, and they of me. They’ve been doing this for so long that they known what I’m about and I know how far they’re willing to go and when they’d want to stop. I feel so privileged that they would trust me and I think they feel seen. I see us as co-conspirators and I like that.”
With the understanding that although time moves chronologically, our memories tend to spiral and overlap, Ellis Ritter sequenced the photographs so that past and present co-exist side by side to explore the ways memory and identity are formed. “When you are thinking of yourself, it’s not just right now or when you were five – it’s all mingled together in this soup of who you are,” she says.
“The story you are telling yourself and the world shifts and evolves over time. When you recall a memory, things get tied to it over time, which alters how you see one event. When I think about these images, it’s really an archive: one body, one mass. With the book, we wanted to recognise that this story could be told in a number of different arrangements and it would impact how you understand it.”
As the photographer, Ellis Ritter is an invisible presence throughout the work who is just as integral to the story as everyone she photographs. “Every image you see is a self-portrait of the artist. In every photograph, I’m the mediating voice that’s going all the time and choosing what to show and what not to show,” she says.
“My identity always has been caught up in photography because my dad was always photographing us so I had a lot of ideas about the performative aspect, even in unstaged photos. The difference between what’s really going on and what people are showing inform each other, I’m trying to read the space in between and see both.”
Although The Model Family is complete, Ellis Ritter is not done. “The work hasn’t stopped. I just photographed my daughter two days ago. And I hope it keeps going until I die. I hope my family sees how much they’ve meant to me and how important they are. The most rewarding thing is to feel like we did something together.”
The Model Family by Tealia Ellis Ritter is published by Loose Joints and is available from 28 January 2022.