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An observation of family life in and around Boston during the 80s

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Susan Kandel documented the same families in their homes for over a decade. The result is a candid collection of photographs observing the everyday realities of their lives

Susan Kandel did not plan At Home. The series, now published as a photobook by STANLEY/BARKER, began by coincidence. It was October 1979, and Pope John Paul II was visiting Boston. Kandel had spent that summer photographing families on Revere Beach, just north of downtown Boston, and now she was documenting them on the Boston Common where the Pope was making an appearance. Of the many people she shot that day, two women invited her to visit their homes in Everett, Massachusetts, just north of the city. She readily agreed, and so began the series At Home. What started as a thesis for her MFA at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, soon developed into an endeavour that spanned over a decade. 

“Family feels like the essential, critical starting point for all of us,” says Kandel, reflecting on what compelled her about the subject. “Family shapes us so much, and this was like getting to see that.” Her intricate black-and-white images – all landscape-orientated – take us deep inside the domestic worlds of those first two families but also several others: people Kandel approached at random in “grocery stores and bowling alleys, Woolworth’s and corner stores”. The photographs appear unstaged and natural. Indeed, if Kandel sensed a family acting awkwardly in her presence, unable to relax, she cut the relationship short: “generally […] I didn’t come back.”

© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.
© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.
© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.

For those who were comfortable with her presence, Kandel regularly returned over many years. She observed birthdays, Thanksgivings, and the everyday lives of these families: mundane moments that become intricate and intriguing within her frames. Perhaps their strength derives partly from Kandel’s genuine fascination with what she was shooting: the families but also the homes themselves. “The stuff in the house always fascinated me,” remembers Kandel. “The stuff on the walls and everything around because it said so much about the people who lived there. The interaction between the people and their belongings always intrigued me.”

One of the reasons for this was that Kandel’s own childhood home had been immaculate: “everything had to be perfect,” she remembers. “The minute you finished doing anything, you had to put it away. It felt like you had to erase any signs that you’d been there.” The photographer revelled in the chaos of the interiors in which she found herself. And the images that compose At Home are a testament to this: the work bursts with random furniture, objects, and clutter. 

© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.
© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.
© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.
© Susan Kandel, courtesy STANLEY/BARKER.

Kandel continued working on the series for over a decade. Now, over 30 years later, the project finds a place in At Home. The publication echoes a family album and to leaf through the pages is to wonder how Kandel succeeded at framing such compelling moments amid the mundanity of the everyday. Each photograph is a world unto itself, ripe for imagined narratives: scenes on which viewers may project their own memories and experiences of family life, or simply observe the fleeting moments crystallised in Kandel’s images.

At Home by Susan Kandel is published by STANLEY/BARKER.

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she is currently Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.

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