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~Wellesley Professor Asks: What Do Snapshots Say About Your Family?~

For immediate release:
Aug. 20, 2003

Arlie Corday,

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 way.

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.


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