Social media has enabled the proliferation of the ‘picture-perfect’ lifestyle, with feeds such as Facebook and Instagram used to disseminate images of trophy homes, happy families and exotic holidays. It’s a fantasy which can be hard to resist but for his latest series, Brothers and Others, Alexander Coggin takes us behind the polished veneer.
He’s been shooting the lives of his affluent American in-laws for the last eight years, over multiple visits to their holiday home in a well to-do golfing community near Lake Michigan. In doing so, he’s sidestepped the typical holiday snaps in favour of a raw and honest portrait of the family.
“By showing the soft moments, the moments of error, bizarreness, even compassion, I’m showing a softer belly of a privilege that is often an easy target for parody,” explains Coggin, who lives in London with his husband, Michael. “Kids crying, moments of tension, or small dramas are some of my favourite times.”
Introduced to the family through his partner, Coggin says shooting the project has allowed him to find his own space with his in-laws. He started experimenting with photography in 2009, and says that his time behind the lens helped him find his place within an initially foreign world.
“Finding my role in his large midwestern family has been a challenge; being an observer from behind my camera has helped me understand their dynamics and my role within their complex familial structure,” he says.
Coggin often photographs his husband, who is at ease in front of the camera, but says the arrival of the next generation of the Burditt family particularly piqued his interest. “I’ve been casually shooting them for nearly a decade, but have taken a more active interest since grandkids have shown up,” he elaborates.
“Lately I’ve become curious about how a child develops their role in a family. My experience creates an episodic narrative – I only see this family once or twice a year en-masse, and each encounter reveals what has changed and what hasn’t.”
Training in theatre before taking up photography, Coggin says his work is about seeing and revealing things that are often overlooked. He admits that as a child he would stare at people a lot to notice details about them; for Brothers and Others, this knack for exposing minute details has come to fore, and Coggin credits playwrights such as August Wilson and Tony Kushner with inspiring his approach.
“Intention can be masked or amplified by our settings, our clothing and our physical gesturing,” he says. “With Michael’s family in particular, behaviour and language is more coded than it is in my east-coast family. I think that makes for heightened situations.
“I’ve had long discussions with people about in-camera representation – that what I develop doesn’t necessarily have to be who they are, it can be more of what they represent, even demographically.”
The world Coggin captures seems removed from everyday pressures – in the private holiday retreat the air is cleaner, the colours are more vivid, and the wardrobe is much, much brighter. “It’s so the world of Michael’s family, this colour palette,” he laughs.
“Many of his family keep a wardrobe up in Michigan that is completely separate from their more urban off-season closets. I think they help highlight the uniqueness of this vacationland, that this is a visually coded and somehow artificial place.”
Life at the privileged country club also has a complex social structure, very different from the family’s regular lives in Chicago, and, says Coggins, the arrival of the children has shown how these codes have to be learned. “It’s a culture fixed in heteronormativity, with social expectations like dress codes and cocktail hours, and the continual performance of leisure. While at first it might appear this family is compliant in such structures, there is a dissonance, especially with the kids, of learning and maintaining protocols of behaviour,” he explains.
But while his work has a sociological side, he hopes it also bears testament to the individuals he’s shot – particularly as the years go by. “I’m looking forward to seeing the ageing of everyone, to visually chart their lives,” he adds. “I’m finally seeing the fruit born of our photographic relationship, and that people are comfortable [complicating] this idealistic Michigan life just by existing and letting me capture it.”