WELLESLEY, Mass. --When you point your camera to capture
the fun this Labor Day weekend, will you ask family and
friends to smile and say "cheese"? If you do, you may miss
an opportunity to record your family history in a more meaningful
Wellesley College art professor and photographer Judith
Black specializes in family portraits with an edge. Black
uses her family as subjects for portraits that have been
exhibited in prestigious art museums and galleries around
the country. However, the biggest difference between Black's
family portraits and the typical snapshot is facial expression.
There are no cheesy smiles here; rather, children's faces
may reflect puzzled hurt or an alienated scowl.
While the perfect "Kodak moment" may demand smiling faces
for family pictures, amateur photographers needn't go along
with that notion, Black says. Family albums can be filled
with posed expressions - or they can reveal clues to real
people and relationships.
"Albums are your own family history," Black said. "That
kind of archive can give you a lot to work with visually
and emotionally when it comes to understanding your family
tree." And contrary to common knowledge, you can't always
believe what you see.
"Photographs look so honest and truthful," she said. "But
it all depends: All photos have the problem of interpretation.
It's the person taking the picture who's doing the editing,
not the camera. If you were writing in a journal or painting
a portrait, you would be much more aware of the editing."
To get closer to the truth, Black suggests combining photo
with the stories that go with them. Ask parents and grandparents
to talk about the people, places and times depicted in old
photo albums. Those visual and oral histories can be an
important tool for genealogists.
And as for today's snapshots, what's an amateur photographer
to do? Capture authentic scowls or counterfeit smiles? "It
depends on what you want," Black said. "But when the expression
is not a smile, it becomes more of an interpretive picture.
It puts more responsibility on the viewer to do a little
analysis, which we don't tend to do with snapshots. For
a birthday or anniversary, we want to see it as a happy
occasion. Even though these photos are not meant for public
consumption, we still want to edit it. We want our families
to be happy and smiling."
Black herself never directs her subjects. She doesn't ask
people to smile or to put an arm around one another. By
letting her family do as they will, she can see over time
certain expressions that repeat themselves, or note who
they often choose to sit next to. She learns something of
importance about her clan. And when she does record a smile,
typically from her exuberant grandchildren, it is a real
expression of happiness, not a command performance.
"There is always truth to photographs and there are always
lies," Black said. "Is a picture worth a thousand words?
The question is, which thousand words? What specific story
are we trying to tell?"
So next time you find yourself with a finger on the camera
shutter, remember that you can decide whether to stage a
pose - or record a story that goes a little deeper. What
have you got to lose except the phony smiles?
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing
an excellent liberal-arts education for women who will make
a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston
is home to 2,300 undergraduate students from all 50 states
and 68 countries.