The photographs that are closest to home

It may be the toughest assignment for photographers: capturing those they know best.

A photographer often becomes famous for projects that turn a lens on unfamiliar people or events. But what happens when the camera faces those closest to the photographer?

Insight into the lives of famous and not-so-famous photographers is offered in Family: Photographers Photograph Their Families (Phaidon Press Limited, $39.95) From Alfred Stieglitz's portrait of his wife Georgia O'Keeffe, to snapshots of children and grandchildren taken by Dorthea Lange and Edward Weston, this collection of images dating from 1865 to 2003 reveals the individuals behind the masters.

They are quiet, seemingly insignificant moments - walks on the beach, lounging in the backyard. Most images capture members of the family, while others include family pets and contents of the home. And in these everyday images, a behind-the-scene glimpse into the photographer's life is revealed.

Highlights include: French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue's self-portrait embracing his baby son; Czech photographer Vlado Bohdan's children in costume; and Cuban photographer Abelardo Morell creating the illusion of his children resting on his house by lying on pavement in the home's shadow;.

Comprised of images with brief captions, the book seems almost like a scrapbook or photo album full of pages of images from different stages in life. In the back are brief summaries of the photographers' lives and style of work.

Unfortunately readers do not hear the photographers' voices detailing the action, but they can read descriptions of how the pictures relate to the type of work the photographers pursued.

Photographing one's family is often a tricky affair. The photographer who documents strangers does so as a detached observer, he or she watches subjects and portrays ideas about who they are.

But family is so incredibly close. The photographer is a part of the action and an influence on the subjects. Familiarity sometimes becomes a liability rather than an asset because the photographer cannot help but bring to the experience preconceived ideas and deep-rooted emotion.

Whether scrupulously planned or photographed at a moment's notice, these images offer viewers a rare glimpse into the mind-set of the photographers behind the cameras.

Mary Knox Merrill is the Monitor's assistant photo editor.

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