The Hereditary Estate

Photographs by Daniel W. Coburn
Essays by Karen Irvine and Kirsten Pai Buick

Kehrer Verlag, 2014

Reviewed by Lauren Greenwald

Issue 74

Daniel W. Coburn’s monograph, The Hereditary Estate, opens with two images. On the inside of the front cover, the endpaper is printed with a red-tinted image of a man holding a revolver alongside his head, and faces a snapshot of a woman next to a bed, hunched over, her hands covering her face. Is she hysterical? Embarrassed? Keening in grief? The man with the handgun seems to show the tiniest smile. Mr. Coburn knows how to grab the viewer’s attention, and he hangs on with both hands throughout this book.

He’s also smart enough to be economical with his words; on the title page, he gives us just two sentences as introduction.  “Our tragedies, our triumphs, our successes, and failures as people, as friends, and as lovers revolve in force around a geographical, spiritual, and emotional center. We call this place Home.”

It is into this literal and metaphorical home that the artist invites the viewer.

Combining images made over the last ten years of his family with found photographs, anonymous snapshots made by amateur photographers, Coburn creates an alternative family photo album, a constructed visual record. Refuting the traditional version of the family album, the idealized and sanitized façade, and the re-written history that often becomes the institutionalized memory of a family, Coburn probes the hidden aspects of his inheritance in his own family’s history of alcoholism, domestic violence, and suicide. 

The images in this book are printed in deep, inky black and white, and the viewer winds through a multi-part sequence: photographs of Coburn’s immediate family and of the Kansas landscape are interspersed throughout by the anonymous snapshots. Like memories, the images in this book are strung together by impulse and association, flowing in and out of time and space. I can easily imagine jumping around in the artist’s head as he moves from one “memory” to another. 

One particularly beautiful two-page spread shows a child in mid-jump on a trampoline, the sun shining through the trees behind his head and wreathing him in a mandala of light, the perfect depiction of an idealized of childhood, while opposite, the artist’s mother lies on her side in a rumpled bed, a shaft of light falling across her eyes like a mask. Another pair of images is so theatrical as to suggest the fire and brimstone of a revivalist’s fantasy – the artist’s mother, again, placed in front of a picket fence, while the setting sun behind her throws striped shadows on the lawn at her feet, joined with a burning field, flames licking the dry grass and smoke masking the sun.

So many of the images in this book push and pull the viewer in different directions. The cover image, called Lover’s Embrace, presents the artist’s mother, eyes closed, while his father’s hands wrap around her face. The gesture is simultaneously gentle and aggressive. A portrait of the artist’s father shows him lying on a concrete floor, curled up on his side, away from the camera. A dark stain on the concrete begins underneath his body and seeps away into the background. It suggests violence, a body and blood, or perhaps weakness, drunkenness and a pool of urine, and ultimately helplessness. But in both of these images there is a delicacy, a tenderness that I would not think possible. There are several themes running through these images; a nod to the spiritual, with ghosts of motion blur and otherworldly lights, the beauty and freedom of childhood, but it is these images of the artist’s parents, and specifically his mother, that affect me most deeply. She is the matriarch, the symbol of home and hearth, and her portraits show her most often staring out of the page, commanding us to look, and I see in her face and eyes boundless strength, pride, and fragility.

The landscape images, as well, are complex and layered. These seemingly majestic, sublime Midwestern landscapes also appeared frequently claustrophobic and menacing. A brilliantly illuminated wheat field is capped with towering thunderclouds. The snow blanketing rolling hills seamlessly blends into a bleached out winter sky. A tangle of leaves and vines reveals on closer inspection branches covered in ice. It is as if the artist created a cage for the inhabitants of this book, and they are trapped by the awesome and fearsome landscape.

While Coburn’s photographs are often reproduced as full-page images, either singly or as two-page spreads, the found images, and gleaned from junk stores and online, are represented more or less at size and with a subtle drop shadow, giving the impression these old photographs are resting on top of the page. These snapshots are in some cases altered (manipulated digitally and physically) by the artist, and punctuate the stream of consciousness arrangement of the more formal, dominant images, like tiny notes to self or pesky memories that pop up from time to time, unbidden. 

In one spread, two snapshots seem to have been tossed onto the blank whiteness of the page. At left, we see a young man in a white t-shirt and glasses chugging a bottle of beer while the image at right shows perhaps the same young man, or one similarly dressed, facing the camera with one hand on his hip, simultaneously pressing the barrel of a pistol to his jaw. In another image, a dressed up young couple pose as if at a party, but the face of the young man has been aggressively torn out of the photo. In yet another, we see the backs of a congregation standing in front of a church wreathed in smoke, watching it burn. 

I think the use of these images is brilliant. Sifting through old photographs, even those of strangers, is an almost universal pleasure. Coburn takes this one step further, exploiting this pleasure while re-contextualizing these images to add another layer to his narrative. This is the power of this book, as Coburn re-contextualizes not only the found images, but also his own work, to make a deeply personal psychologically complex narrative. I’ve seen many of these images before, in other circumstances, but in this book, I see them in a completely new, refreshing light. 

In addition to the photographs, the book contains two contributing essays, by Karen Irvine and Kirsten Pai Buick, beautifully bookending the images in this volume and providing excellent and nuanced analysis of the work. Irvine’s essay, titled Broken Family Album, precedes the work, and she writes about the inherently flawed, heavily curated family album, associated photographic traditions, and the haunting of a family, any family, by its past. Following the images, Buick’s essay, titled Reckoning: Denaturing Domesticity in the Photography of Daniel W. Coburn, highlights the power these images have to elicit recognition in the viewer, and to transcend the traditional notions of the domestic sphere (including our notions about who may or may not explore this sphere). She also wonderfully articulates a crucial factor in the making of these images, writing, “I also see courage in the photographs of Daniel W. Coburn, infinite courage in the images of his family. They must be acknowledged as co-authors of these images. And I thank them. “   

Published by Kehrer Verlag, the book is a standout, the design and execution superb. Hardcover with a Swiss binding, in which the back cover is attached to the last page of the book, but wraps around the spine and the front, it measures approximately 9 x 11.5 inches, and consists of 112 pages with 76 duotone illustrations. 

The Hereditary Estate is a poignant meditation on family, and a gorgeous object to have and to hold – a wonderful addition to any collection. 

Buy the book here.

A short Q & A with Daniel W. Coburn is included below.

What was the inspiration for the title, The Hereditary Estate?

When making the images for this book I was contemplating the successes and failures of my own relationships and how they were/are affected by the observations I made as a child.  I think we are all heavily influenced by what we learn from our parents, our extended family, our siblings, and our neighbors.  I've also begun to understand just how difficult it is to take an objective stance; to assess your strengths and weaknesses as a person and make changes.  Especially when those changes require you to reject the direct and indirect teachings and ideologies passed-on by family members.

There is a history of domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide in my family.  I think of the title "The Hereditary Estate" as a metaphor.  We pass on much more than our property, objects and financial estate to subsequent generations.  With these material offerings, each generation inherits the legacy of failure or success afforded to the previous generation.

The publisher's description calls this book a ten-year retrospective and a conceptual work of art. How might you classify this book? 

I've been making and collecting photographs for ten years.  Recently, I began thinking about the connective tissue that binds these seemingly disparate bodies of work that I've made over the last decade.  It boils down to my fascination with the sublime; making images that are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.  All of the images I've made are pictures of my family and my home in either an abstract or literal sense.

Somewhere along my path as an artist I realized there was a valuable component missing from my own family archive.  The photo album assembled by my family members was an idealized version of the truth, omitting the instances of tragedy that haunted my family history.  The more I researched this topic, the more I began to realize that this was a phenomenon that occurred in most family albums.  At some point the use of photography veered from a practical attempt to preserve memory.  Compiling the family album became more about adhering to the American Dream, or keeping up with the Jones'.

This book is a family album, an amendment to my own idealized family album, but I make my best effort to create and present images that are accessible to many people.  I present images that I have made alongside photographs that I have collected through the years.  I manipulate some of the found images to create a more complex narrative.  The book is published by Kehrer-Verlag with international distribution.  This book might end up on multiple continents, on bookshelves, in proximity to family albums.  This is an exciting idea for me.

I see you are credited as sharing the graphic design with Tim Hossler. How much control did you have over the overall design of the book? Were there any significant changes made as you were developing this?

Tim is my colleague at the University of Kansas and a fantastic graphic designer.  The design effort was very much a collaboration.  It's difficult to "let go" as an artist but I was in very good hands with Tim who was art director and book designer for Annie Leibovitz for a number of years.  The sequencing of images was my contribution, but I give credit to Tim for the remainder of the design work.  We really wanted to make a book that was a unique object, something that was much different from a typical trade book, something that referenced the history of the family album.

In Kirsten Pai Buick's essay, she mentions the role of your family as co-authors of these images. How would you characterize the way your family contributes to these images?

My family members are definitely my collaborators.  I describe myself as a visual novelist; a person that uses the people in my life to inspire a complex set of characters.  They are themselves, but they are also actors.  I most often take the directorial approach to making images.