Family photography

Since photography was invented, people have been photographing family for all the reasons photographs are taken: money; love; the desire to document what’s important or fleeting; to capture a snapshot in time; to tell a fiction or fantasy; to construct an identity, or produce propaganda.

We all do it, whether we call it art, commerce, or don’t even bother to give it a name. As a genre, the way it slips between categories gives it resonance.

It has some qualities that are not shared by other genres; even other kinds of portraiture: the relationship between photographer and subject is especially charged. It’s often made by women; the only subject matter a busy photographer/mother could access. It’s often discounted in the canon (not just because it’s a ‘thing women do’, but also because it’s tainted by commerce – which of course has no place in art – and amateurism – ditto.)

More so than in other genres that deal with people, there is an opportunity to tell a story from someone else’s point of view: to reveal the interior life of a child, or imagine how they see the world, or help them capture it in some way.

For all these reasons, multiplied by the fact I have a newish child, I’m interested in the genre. So I’m collecting book and photographer recommendations. I’ll share here what I’ve found.


Note, these are currently all books on my to-read list, so I can’t vouch for any of them

Books about/from the child’s experience

i saw the air fly

In Southeastern Turkey, just kilometres from the Syrian border, is Sirkhane: a mobile darkroom which travels from village to village teaching children how to shoot, develop, and print their own photographs. … In these images, produced by the project’s young participants, the city of Mardin and the vast Mesopotamian plain beyond become a backdrop to the miraculous dreams, games, and discoveries which play out within the space of the frame.

Portraits and Dreams

When Wendy Ewald arrived in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains in 1975, she began a project that aimed to reveal the lives, intimate dreams and fears of local schoolchildren. Tasked with finding authentic ways of representing the lives of these children, she gave each of them a camera and interviewed them about their childhood in the mountains. Through these intriguing transcripts and photographs, we discover the lives of families as seen through the eyes of their children: where domestic, rural life is understood with startling openness and depth.

Huts, Temples, Castles

In the wake of the Second World War, aiming to occupy the children rampaging streets and parks, the City of Amsterdam founded Jongensland, a space where boys (and the occasional, officially disallowed girl) could play, build, create, and destroy, largely without supervision. … In 1969, when the architectural photographer Ursula Schulz-Dornburg moved to Düsseldorf with her two young children, she discovered Jongensland the other side of the border from Germany’s strictly regulated playgrounds. Fascinated by the improvised buildings where her children would play, she made extensive photographs capturing them being constructed, used, demolished, and reshaped.

The Adventures of Guille and Belinda and The Enigmatic Meaning of Their Dreams: 1

For more than two decades, Alessandra Sanguinetti has been photographing the lives of Guillermina and Belinda, two cousins living in rural Argentina, as they move through childhood and youth toward womanhood. … The farmlands of western Buenos Aires province are a particular mix of the modern and traditional, where life is lived in consonance with animals and rugged landscapes. Against this backdrop, Guille and Belinda go through the childhood rites of dressing up and make believe, exploring and appropriating the world around them as they go.

What She Said

The work originates in portraits Deanna Templeton made on the streets of the US, Europe, Australia and Russia, in which she captured women in their adolescence: punks and outcasts whose ripped jeans and tights, tattoos, and hairstyles stand as testament to this transitional moment in their lives as they navigate the intensity of teenage life.

Running Wild: Frances Kearney

Frances Kearney’s photographs ask questions of the viewer. In her book ‘Running Wild’ she asks us to think about children and their place in nature, in the man-made world and in the hinterland of ghostly spaces we have no names for. Without being didactic, she forces us to confront uncomfortable places in which girls are left to fend for themselves, to create or perhaps to dream, unwatched, unchaperoned and unaware for the first time in their lives. Are they the last people on the planet or the first?

Roger Mayne Photographs

In the space of three days in 1956, Roger Mayne photographed children at play in a street in North Kensington. The photographs of Southam Street became the evidence of a community and a way of life which vanished under the eyes of developers and politicians; the street itself was demolished. 

Helen Levitt

Helen Levitt (1913 – 2009) numbers among the foremost exponents of street photography. As a passionate observer and chronicler of everyday street life in New York, she spent decades documenting residents of the city’s poorer neighbourhoods such as Lower East Side and Harlem. Levitt’s oeuvre stands out for her sense of dynamics and surrealistic sense of humour, and her employment of colour photography was revolutionary: Levitt numbers among those photographers who pioneered and established colour as a means of artistic expression.

Justine Kurland: Girl Pictures

The North American frontier is an enduring symbol of romance, rebellion, escape, and freedom. At the same time, it’s a profoundly masculine myth―cowboys, outlaws, Beat poets. Photographer Justine Kurland reclaimed this space in her now-iconic series of images of teenage girls, taken between 1997 and 2002 on the road in the American wilderness. “I staged the girls as a standing army of teenaged runaways in resistance to patriarchal ideals,” says Kurland. She portrays the girls as fearless and free, tender and fierce. They hunt and explore, braid each other’s hair, and swim in sun-dappled watering holes―paying no mind to the camera (or the viewer). Their world is at once lawless and utopian, a frontier Eden in the wild spaces just outside of suburban infrastructure and ideas.

Lartigue: The Boy and the Belle Époque

As a little boy of seven or eight, Jacques Henri Lartigue was given his first camera, and soon was developing his own photographs. Born into a prosperous family, from childhood Lartigue acutely observed the social rituals of the upper echelons of society through his photography. The hand-held Kodak camera, first introduced in 1888, granted the young photographer flexibility to capture the fine details of eccentric family members at home, the elaborate social parade in the Bois de Boulogne, on the beach in Normandy and beyond. Classic images of motor cars and high fashion sit alongside previously unpublished photographs from the Lartigue archive. … At a young age Lartigue mastered the medium of photography: this exploration of his extraordinary childhood is interwoven with a social and cultural portrait of the Belle Époque.

Lewis Carroll’s Photography and Modern Childhood

Lewis Carroll began photographing children in the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when the young medium of photography was opening up new possibilities for visual representation and the notion of childhood itself was in transition. In this lavishly illustrated book, Diane Waggoner offers the first comprehensive account of Carroll as a photographer of modern childhood, exploring how his photographs of children gave visual form to emerging conceptions of childhood in the Victorian age.

Sally Mann: At Twelve, Portraits of Young Women (30th Anniversary Edition)

At Twelve is Sally Mann’s revealing, collective portrait of twelve-year-old girls on the verge of adulthood. To be young and female in America is a time of tremendous excitement and social possibilities; it is a trying time as well, caught between childhood and adulthood, when the difference is not entirely understood. As Ann Beattie writes in her perceptive introduction, “These girls still exist in an innocent world in which a pose is only a pose―what adults make of that pose may be the issue.”

XYZ Books Lisbon – Rato Tesoura Pistola

Rato, Tesoura, Pistola gathers together photographs by Pedro Guimarães, produced in collaboration with Nuno Engstrøm Guimarães (drawings, 7 years old) and Emma-Sofie Engstrøm Guimarães (monster pancakes, 5 years old). … Combining the drawings of his children together with portraits of them playfully or simply relating with the father’s camera, this photobook, designed by Dayana Lucas, is a manifold of experiences and artistic attitudes in which photography works as an intertwining element and where design strategies activate it as a device involving the reader himself in the game.

One, Two, Three, More

Helen Levitt’s earliest pictures are a unique and irreplaceable look at street life in New York City from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1940s. There are children at play, lovers flirting, husbands and wives, young mothers with their babies, women gossiping, and lonely old men.

Helen Levitt: A Way of Seeing

Ever since it was first published in 1965, Helen Levitt’s collection of photographs taken on the streets of 1940s New York City has been revered as a classic of its genre. … Levitt’s photography has stood the test of time and now provides compelling insight into the daily lives of New York’s youngest denizens long after they have grown up.

In the Street: Chalk Drawings and Messages, New York City, 1938–1948

“All over the city on streets and walks and walls the children . . . have established ancient, essential and ephemeral forms of art, have set forth in chalk and crayon the names and images of their pride, love, preying, scorn, desire. . . . The Lady in this House is Nuts. . . . Lois I have gone up the street. Don’t forget to bring your skates. . . . Ruby loves Max but Max hates Ruby. . . . And drawings, all over, of . . . ships, homes . . . western heroes . . . and monsters . . . which each strong shower effaces.” … So wrote James Agee in 1939. He shared this fascination with children’s street drawings and messages with his friend Helen Levitt. Here now are over one hundred of her photographs, made in the years between 1938 and 1948.

Other family books

These ones are less about the (young) child’s point of view.

Sally Mann, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs

Richard Bellingham, Rays a Laugh

Larry Sultan, Pictures From Home

Andi Galdi Vinko, Sorry I Gave Birth I Disappeared But Now I’m Back

Exhibitions and Collections

Val Williams: Who’s looking at the family?


The show included Anna and Bernhard Blume’s bizarre Kitchen Frenzy, where the calm world of the suburban kitchen explodes, and introspective projects by Larry Sultan and Paul Reas both of whom explored the relationship between father and son through their own personal histories. Visitors saw the fears and delights of motherhood in Sally Mann’s photographs of her own children; the portrait of Nottingham family by Nick Walpington; and family groups posing for the camera in photographs taken by the Apes of London Zoo.

Peter Galassi, The Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort


In the accompanying book, curator Peter Galassi suggests that artists “began to photograph at home not because it was important, in the sense that political issues are important, but because it was there—the one place that is easier to get to than the street. After they had worked for a while, many also realized that the overlooked opportunity was also a rich one, full of uncharted mysteries.”


Of course there’s some good stuff on YouTube:

Alec Soth on the mostly female photographers featured in the Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort exhibition:

Soth discusses these books:

  • “Present Tense” by JoAnn Verburg
  • “Theater of Manners” by Tina Barney
  • “Reading Raymond Carver” & “Real Life Dramas” by Mary Frey
  • “Animals” & “Perfectible Worlds” by Sage Sohier
  • “Taken From Memory” by Sheron Rupp
  • “Wood River Blue Pool” by Jo Ann Walters
  • “Pleasant Street” & “Vacation” by Judith Black
  • “Family Photographs” by Joan Albert
  • “At Twelve” & “Immediate Family” by Sally Mann
  • “In My Room,” “Living Solo” & “Middle Aged Men” by Adrienne Salinger

Matt Day flicks through a massive pile of family photography books:

Day discusses these books:

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