Charles Rozier, House Music

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Dewi Lewis (here). Cloth hardback with tipped-in cover photograph. 24.5 x 22.2 cm. 124 pages with 28 duotone and 38 color plates. With a foreword by the artist and essay by Alison Nordström. Designed by Charles Rozier. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The archetype of the proud snapshooting papa is widely relatable. Hollywood’s bromide isn’t far off the mark: Clark Griswold hustling his brood into form, clicking the shutter, then departing for the next photo op. Perhaps this image stirs memories for certain readers?

But fatherhood strangely loses steam in the fine art photo world. Yes, there are precedents, but they have been generally sporadic. A nude Neil torso here, a Frank family in the windshield there. One thinks of Laurie and Ethan Winogrand climbing the walls of the Central Park Zoo, or Erik and Anna Friedlander swept up in the wake of their dad’s camera along with everything else he encountered. In recent years Matt Eich, Christopher Anderson, Amani Willett, and Trent Parke plunged in a bit deeper, creating whole photobooks focused on immediate family. But these have generally been one-off projects capturing a short period of domestic life before the photographer moves on to greener pastures. 

Charles Rozier’s House Music is a slightly different animal. This is a long term project covering a sizable chunk of the artist’s life. The photographs span 26 years between 1987 to 2014, the entire period packed with surprising efficiency into a modest gray tome. In the early 1980s Rozier had fallen into the regular habit of taking unposed portraits of people around him. When the time came to create his own family, he was primed and ready. The book commences in early coupledom, just before parenthood. His wife Helena enjoys a quiet breakfast in the kitchen, then a peaceful moment on her bed in the next photograph. If she suspected the whirlwind to come, she shows no indication. 

From this point things quickly pick up speed as the book shuffles through one seismic change after another, in the aw-shucks momentous path of most families. There are births, deaths, moves, and tears, spiced with routine afternoons at the dining table. By the book’s end—marked by a strongly metaphorical image of his daughter Laura releasing a raptor in flight—Rozier’s kids are in their early twenties. Perhaps they are partially responsible for the grey hairs increasingly abundant in their elders? In any case, time marches on. As Rozier looks back wistfully in the foreword, “those twenty-six years proved me with a remarkable cast of characters whose striking combination of anxiety, ferocity, and charisma ultimately gave this work its life.” 

The natural chronology of Rozier’s life orders his book into sequence (a listing in the back specifies the date of each photo). This might suffice on its own to frame a loose narrative, but the pace is helped along with timely captions. The major figures in Rozier’s life are introduced into the book one by one in turn, each with name and reference point. We first meet Helena in 1989, then Laura, born 1992, then George, Helena’s brother, and so on. Each family member gets an introduction and two photos before giving way to the next. The steady pace of new characters feels somewhat theatrical or, considering the book’s title, like an orchestral piece gaining players. Within a dozen pages we’ve met most of the main characters (a few come later), and then the fun begins. Family members interact and/or isolate, children gain identity, bellies sag, bones stretch, settings shift. Rozier patiently documents everything. 

Rozier’s two daughters team up to catalyze one thread in the book. It may be cliche to note how quickly kids mature and change. Still it is worth mentioning. For any parent the astonishing pace of development is a truism. Kids shapeshift into new characters over the course of just a few months. And then hit repeat. House Music leverages the girls’ morphology into an anticipatory edge. With each page the reader wonders, what form will these sprites assume next? Meanwhile their childish whirlwinds create endless photographic permutations. As toddlers they flit through bizarre postures and possibilities. The photographic potential is as boundless as their energy, an idea embodied perfectly in a photo of Laura in 1995, a literal blur of activity as she bounces before her dad’s camera. Pictures of Anna tilting across her chair or waving at balloons gain visual power from their whimsical nature. No adult would ever think to assume those postures. As the girls mature they hew more closely to adult convention. But the experimentation of pubescence still generates plenty of offbeat moments. Photos of Anna framed in colorful hair clips and Laura clouded in frizzy hair are wonderfully curious frames, revealing their father’s sharp eye for humorous juxtaposition.

Perhaps it’s photos like these which Alison Nordström has in mind when describing Rozier’s as “the sensibility of the street photographer”. There is some truth to her claim in the introductory essay, since these are candid moments plucked from the flow of life. But family pictures possess an emotional resonance which is quite difficult to achieve shooting public strangers. 

The tension between interior revelation and exterior remove is not just the crux of street photography. To some degree it bears on all pictures of people. In House Music, it is personified in Helena’s brother George, who appears regularly throughout the book, growing progressively older but with his impassive expression largely unchanged. In his introductory photo he gazes gauntly past his breakfast table. The next two pictures capture him in a similar spirit of contemplation. His mood brightens for two photos playing with his young nieces, before receding into deeper meditation for the rest of the book. We can see that Rozier’s relationship with George is long and complicated. They must have shared some interesting conversations, but of course photographs are silent. To my eye at least, George is a cipher. We come to know his face fairly well, even as it grays up. But what’s inside the head? Who knows? It’s hard to tell if he is really so blank, or if Rozier is deliberately throwing us off the scent. In any case, his visage provides the series an enigmatic backbone.

It might be some consolation to George that his sister Helena is portrayed in a similar spirit. She is a doting parent, so close to her daughters that her gestures occasionally mimic them unconsciously. Whether with kids or alone she too appears to be a deep thinker. After an initial burst of cheer, blowing happy bubbles into the mirror to celebrate her first born daughter, her expression in later photos seems rather ground down. Whether due to the demands of work, family, or her incessantly photographing husband it’s hard to tell. If she does not smile often for his camera, the book offers some clues. Her parents are introduced mid-way through the book. Within just a few photographs her father has passed away, followed several pages later by her mother. Helena has a lot on her plate. 

Fair enough. But still, one wonders, where are the happy moments? Rozier has hewn closely to a candid aesthetic, deliberately avoiding canned smiles and “say cheese” moments. But one wonders if he has oversteered in the other direction? Every family experiences extremes, catastrophic spills, outrageous laughter, skateboard accidents, and decision points. Whether deliberately omitted by Rozier or perhaps never shot, these highs and lows are conspicuous in their absence. House Music instead portrays the Roziers in a state of reserve, happily ensconced in their Connecticut residence, counters swept, 401Ks checked, Is dotted, Ts crossed. They do not seem to venture outside much, at least judging by photographic evidence. 

If they like to stay indoors, that’s understandable. The Roziers’ Westport house appears quite comfy. We see glimpses of its rooms backgrounding various photographs beginning in the book’s central section, complete with labradoodle and polished tile. Perhaps coincidentally, this is right around the time Rozier switched from b/w film to color photography, a change marked by the book in dramatic Wizard of Oz fashion. The initial monochrome pages fill with rainbow color in one swoop, on page 54. The remaining pages are color. The photographs in this early transition period, as Rozier adapted to his new home and new camera gear, are especially strong. A photograph of Helena reaching into a cabinet, dressed casually in underwear, is a masterpiece of composition and curiosity. This photo is nicely paired with a close up taken in the same room, a dining nook with peculiar request on a computer screen. As in many homes, family members tends to cluster around the kitchen. This room is the stage for many pictures while bits of dining room, hallway, and den fill in more clues. Gradually enough space, windows, and angles are revealed to form a rough mental image of the house in the reader’s mind. It may be an inanimate object, but the house plays a central role in Rozier life. It is in fact the title character. 

The house notwithstanding, the most important character in this family tale is the one who is never seen, and that is Charles Rozier himself. One suspects that he must have captured himself at some points along the journey, perhaps with a timed portrait or glimpsed in a mirror, or through the lens of his wife or daughters. But there is no sign of him in the book. Instead we must glean his presence through his indirect impact. Looking at some of the scenes in the book his shutterbug instincts are clear. He must have had a camera always at his side. There is simply no other way to capture them.

Considering its omnipresence, I’m guessing his camera created some tension along the way. Perhaps he has been ordered to put that thing away for once, and engage with the family? If so, such moments have been omitted from the book, perhaps to its detriment. House Music is genteel and reserved, a befitting portrayal of old New England charm. But its even toned keel sometimes struggles for a pulse. The house feels weary, as do its inhabitants. A later photo of Helena napping in the yard seems to imply as much. She’s raised two kids, put both parents to rest, and soothed her husband’s camera. She’s earned some downtime, and a spot on the cover, where this picture appears tipped in below the title. 

Collector’s POV: Charles Rozier does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artists directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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