Inside the Family Albums of the World’s Finest Photographers

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New York City, 1953Elliott Erwitt © Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos – Collection Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris

An exhibition at Paris’s Maison Européenne de la Photographie offers a masterclass in family portraiture from Nan Goldin, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank and more

Of all the many types of snapshot in existence, the family photograph is undoubtedly the most prolific. Ever since the birth of photography, people have jumped at the chance to capture their loved ones on film, making permanent the memories that would otherwise be lost to the passage of time. While the sentiment is a powerful one, however, its realisation is another matter; many family photos falling victim to bad timing and technical deficiency. Which is why the current exhibition at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris is a must-visit; titled Family Pictures it is a masterclass in the art of ancestral archiving from some of the world’s greatest image-makers, from Robert Frank to Harry Callahan to Larry Clark.

The images included range in tone and theme. Some of the most heartwarming shots include Nan Goldin’s intimate portrait of her elderly parents seated on the edge of their bed in a gentle but passionate embrace: a demonstration of their open love for one another and their willingness to share that with their daughter. While American documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt’s declaration that he enjoys “nothing more than spending time with my loved ones, young and old” is beautifully encapsulated in his moving photograph of his wife and their newborn baby, gazing at each other with shared adoration. The scene is being presided over by the family cat whose pose mirrors Mrs Erwitt’s, creating a protective blockade around the latest, bare-bottomed addition to the clan.

Two series, by Nicholas Nixon and Richard Avedon, serve as poignant reflections on the evanescence of life. For his ongoing project The Brown Sisters, Nixon has captured a portrait of his wife Bebe and her three siblings once a year since 1974. The sisters stand in the same order for each shot, growing more dependent in stance and less defiant in gaze as the years progress and the dynamic shifts between both them and their photographer (Nixon now describes them as his collaborators on the project, rather than simply his subjects). The photographs are a wonderful study of sisterhood – something that Nixon, himself an only child, finds obviously fascinating – but more than that, they are an investigation in ageing. As each picture unearths new wrinkles, we cannot help but ponder the fact that one day, one of the sisters will no longer be present.

Less subtle but no less poetic in its realisation is a set of seven photographs taken by Avedon of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, in the late 60s and early 70s as Avedon Sr. battled with the cancer that would eventually claim his life. The resulting images – so candid and searing in effect that they caused a scandal upon their original display – are an extraordinary testament to an indelible bond of trust between father and son. “At first he merely agreed to let me photograph him,” Avedon recalled of his father’s response to the project, “but I think after a while he began to want me to. He started to rely on it, as I did, because it was a way we had of forcing each other to recognise what we were.” And that’s just what this exhibition highlights: that the best family portraits are the result of a mutual acceptance between relatives as one sets their lens upon the others and commits to film what is often the most testing but truthful of all human relationships.

Family Pictures is at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until January 29, 2017.