“The exploration of who we are and what we want to become. Is there ever any other subject?” —Miuccia Prada
The family unit, siblings, extended family, and the individuals who make up these large trees, is the subject of photographer Lydia Panas’ hardback book of glossy, meticulous portraits, aptly titled The Mark of Abel. Thinking back on the biblical story of Cain and Abel, Panas’ clever reverse of the “mark” seems to imply that her subjects and viewers alike suffer Abel’s curse of brotherhood, fraternity, and family. It’s a rich theme for rich photographs, set in an Eden-like location of lush and overgrown greenery. Ninety-five pages long, containing fifty perfectly paced photographs, The Mark of Abel presents us with hundreds of strangers, all of whom feel bizarrely familiar. Panas’ family portraits are tender rather than sentimental, serious though not cynical, and dysfunctional without being cliché.
Perhaps it is because there is an endless number of things to say about family dynamics and relationships that Panas explains so little in her book; her images are captionless and we are left wondering if we are looking at mothers and daughters, sisters or brothers, parents and children. She intends for us to guess, guided by our own prejudice and experience with family, and her subject’s interactions with each other and the camera. Panas lets her families describe themselves through a hundred small and hardly discernable details: the space between a couple that seems just a tiny bit too big, the sibling who stands apart from the rest, the teenage son who gazes down despondently at the ground. Frozen within the frame, they illuminate through gestures the silent nuances of group dynamics.
“For three years,” Panas explains in an artist statement at the end of the book, “in hot and cold weather, I invited families of various forms to stand before my lens. I asked them not because I knew what to expect, but because I was curious to see what would happen.” Her hyper-realistic portraits seem to fit, visually and conceptually, somewhere between the photographic tradition of Diane Arbus and Rineke Dijkstra. Instead of focusing on individual dysfunction she sheds light on our common difficulties by showing families as parts that make up a larger whole. She focuses on children and teenagers as they relate to adults and each other, competitive siblings or antsy sons and daughters, instead of showing them wrapped up in their own oblivious innocence. Even in her individual portraits, set within the context of this particular book, seem to question why that one person is alone and separated from the rest.
“What do you do when you’ve lost innocence, and how do you move forward?” Maile Meloy also asks, shrewdly discerning what Panas herself might be asking of her subjects.
If one singular theme can be extracted from the families in The Mark of Abel, it might be one of lost innocence. As the novelist Maile Meloy states in the books forward, “Panas’ subjects are people with knowledge, aware of complication and disaster.” Panas does not focus on why these families have lost their innocence, she seems to see it is a natural by-product of the human condition, and treats it like something we spend our lives learning to accept and transcend. There is a complicated range of emotions depicted in Panas’ photographs, and all are presented with an honesty and nakedness that is almost heartbreaking to page through. “What do you do when you’ve lost innocence, and how do you move forward?” Maile Meloy also asks, shrewdly discerning what Panas herself might be asking of her subjects.
These emotions are emphasized in these photographs, however, because no one person in them feels as untouched and pure as the backgrounds. Panas has transported her thoroughly human subjects into the thick forests, snowy pastures, and bubbling rivers of middle-American rural perfection. Lost in a jungle of greenery, these 21st century families look out of place. Deprived of the familiar behavioral clues we tend to rely on, the manner in which her subjects approach the camera is drastically altered. Without a city, street, home, yard, or interior to give them context, one that tells the part of their story they want others to see, these families feel totally unprotected in front of the camera. Without necessarily meaning to, Panas’ subjects tell us the stories most families do their best to conceal.
Without judgment, we are left looking at our own emotional reflections, staring into faces expressing all too familiar vulnerability, uncertainly, sadness, curiosity, love, and tenderness.
Interestingly, we as viewers also have fewer ways in which judge them. Without conventions or commodities we too are left with expressions. Panas’ strength lies in denying us of our great ability to judge others rather than ourselves. At first glance, Panas’ subjects almost feel too normal, and her sitters seem momentarily like “regular” people with relatively happy lives. Her portraits feel overly contrived but somehow it suits them; as couples pose and families mingle, their own awkwardness seems to shine through without direction or intention. On closer inspection, details jump to the forefront of the photographs, and familial awkwardness, as Panas proves, is a universal human experience. Without judgment, we are left looking at our own emotional reflections, staring into faces expressing all too familiar vulnerability, uncertainly, sadness, curiosity, love, and tenderness.
Panas’ eye as a photographer, or hand in editorializing, comes through most clearly in how she frames her portraits, in who she pushes to the edges and who is centered, in who is sharply in focus and who is left fading into the background. Her use of depth of field seems to accentuate the roles the families have taken on themselves, unprompted by the artist, and her subtle manipulations give her photographs the tension that makes them so compelling.
Panas’ portraits are a highly recommended walk through the battlefield of familial emotion, and it’s a book that epitomizes the overwhelming sense of individuality that makes family at once so necessary and so difficult. If you spend enough time with The Mark of Abel, you’ll find yourself wondering less about the families standing silent and still before the lens, and focusing more on your own complicated and discomforting familial experiences.
Lydia Panas’s The Mark of Abel is available on her website and online booksellers.