Photographs by Christopher Anderson
Kehrer Verlag, 2013

Reviewed by Leo Hsu

Issue 57

“In 2008, my son was born. And like any new father, I began photographing this experience quite organically… I certainly did not intend to show the pictures to anyone other than my own family. Around the same time, my father became ill. It is safe to say that I was reflecting on obvious themes of life and death and the seasonal nature of my existence… [These] photographs were not separate from my work… they were my most important life work.” - Chris Anderson, Son, 2013

Son is Chris Anderson’s meditation on his role as a father and as a son. Anderson is respected for his photojournalism: he was a member of VII and currently is a member of Magnum, and his innovative Capitolio (2009) was an imaginative expansion on the documentary photobook form. Son feels like a small book, with its neat narrative built around an intimate core, but its modest size and scope belie its richness. The book addresses the complexity of occupying multiple roles at once, and the sense of self that emerges from one’s efforts to reconcile, or at least, to accept, these different roles. In this, the book will have a wide appeal.

The individual images in this book occupy a range of emotional registers, and a nuanced edit allows perspectives and perceptions to overlay one another. The structure seems simple and straightforward, but it isn’t tight or constraining at all. The moods and modes are continuously, suggestively asking: who is looking? In what way are we seeing as the observer or the observed?

Son begins with an image of Anderson’s son lying on a bed, naked and bathed in warm light. We are introduced to Anderson’s partner/wife, in the comfort of their home. Home is secure; it’s just the little family here, and everything is bright and cheerful, lazy and easy. It may be a cliché but it is nonetheless true: when you have a child you see the world anew. In several pictures we are shown the world from the height perspective of a small child, but the pictures are also characterized by Anderson’s sensibility, and his sensitivity to light.

The book changes tone, however, and Anderson shows us also his father, contending with age and infirmity, in pictures that are desaturated and broken by hard shadows. The images complementing those of Anderson’s father are less easy: the world around feels more precarious. Is this now Anderson imagining how his father sees? Is this what his father’s condition and his own changing role has led him to see?

What emerges at the center of this book is, surprisingly, neither the sons, nor the fathers, but Anderson’s partner. She is the only individual to fully occupy consciousness, to look back at the camera in a way that recognizes the efforts of Anderson’s attention. The child is too young to be self-conscious and the father is obscured by the medical conditions that threaten to define him. But she is fully realized, confident and strong, and she is the through line between the different movements in the book.

Sometimes Anderson watches her, and sometimes she stands in for him. There is an image of her holding the child’s hand as they watch the father; Anderson has fallen back to make the picture. The power of this image, in the context of the book, of imagining the photographer watching his loved ones organize themselves into this visual relationship, is enthralling.

Anderson recognizes his partner’s strength as he himself goes about reconciling his new roles. And while she surely has other roles to inhabit, the book is in praise to her, a paean or a love song. Anderson’s looking at her, and looking at himself knowing that she is there. The connection between Anderson’s photographic interpretation of his visible world and his corresponding complex of feelings feels undeniable. His acknowledgment of the partnerships that allow us to negotiate these changes rings true.

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Leo Hsu is a photographer, writer and photography instructor, based in Pittsburgh, PA.
Contact Leo here.