Vernacular photography tells us our story. It shows us who we are and who we want to be. Open any photo album, and you’re confronted with cultural clichés played out to illustrate an ideal of family, success, happiness. No surprise these are the moments we choose to memorialize. These amateur-ish snapshots create an archive of moments of imagined joy; they stop time at the instances when we are happiest (or at least when we are aping happiness) and then catalog those pictured felicities as memories.
Leonie Hampton’s autobiographical photography, In the Shadow of Things, on view at Forma in Milan, draws deeply from this vernacular aesthetic. Her work reveals both the intense emotions interweaving a familial unit and the mundane context from which they arise. At times poignant, funny, or simply peculiar, Hampton presents a narrative tour of her cultural environment. According to the texts accompanying the show, that narrative revolves around her mother’s obsessive-compulsive, hoarding tendencies. But, more importantly, these photos describe a young photographer coming to terms with her own identity within this unit, struggling to understand her nature, her decisions and impulses against the cultural backdrop of home.
Most suggestive of this inquiry is the inclusion of a collection of family snapshots, chronologically ordered, The Christmas Tree Series. The artist captions these images in pencil, directly on the wall, giving a brief description of the theme—amateur group portrait in front of the Christmas tree—leaving blank spaces where the years’ photos have gone missing. In one, the caption states the Christmas tree was salvaged from the trash heap, and indeed the ‘tree’ in the picture is now only a naked branch, having lost its needles. The subjects, Leonie and her siblings, are similarly threadbare, wearing shorts and t-shirts, asserting that this year the photograph was snapped sometime, perhaps a lengthy period, after the winter holiday. This is a tribe clinging to a tradition that it has outgrown, a group bound by duty if not hope, re-enacting the story of a happy family at Christmastime, preserved once again for its ongoing archive.
In the images shot by Hampton herself, the impulse to preserve an ideal of the family is clear as well, but in a way, less choreographed, less rigid. These candid photos reveal the concerns, sensibilities, and banalities of these people’s lives, pictures of a changing home, a changing dynamic. They present the evidence of a bent toward preserving and archiving the household, presumably the symptoms of Hampton’s mother. At each turn, they manifest the vision of the artist, also documenting, accumulating, cataloging, as she understands her relationships with these characters and as she settles her own identity as one of the story’s collecting protagonists herself.