JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by L’Artiere Edizioni (here). Softcover (17 x 24 cm), 96 pages, with 63 black and white images. Includes an essay by Alisa Victoria Prince. Design by Teresa Piardi – Maxwell Studio. In an edition of 750 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The work of Kristen Joy Emack, a self-taught photographer and educator, explores themes of childhood, family, visibility, and loss. She has spent the past thirteen years photographing her daughter Appaloosa (or Apple for short) and her daughter’s two cousins Leyah and Kayla. Emack is the white mother of mixed race children and an aunt to black nieces, and her photographs are a natural expression of this set of bonds. In her female centric series, the focus is on girls’ relationships to themselves and each other. “There’s something sacred about the lives of girls, and their innocent, confident relationships to themselves, their world and one another is gravitational.” The photographs have been recently released in a photobook by the Italian publisher L’Artiere Edizioni. Simply titled Cousins, the book documents moments of tenderness and kinship in black childhood, a subject covered less often across the history of the medium than we might expect.
Cousins is a softcover book of medium size that immediately feels intimate and easy to handle. A folded poster serves as a dust jacket. Printed in sepia color, it shows three girls together photographed from the back, as their braided heads gently touch, at once similar and individually different. The title and the artist’s name are elegantly embossed in gold on the cover. All of the photographs inside are black and white, varying in size and placement and having a white border around them. An essay by Alisa Victoria Prince closes the book. In general, the photobook is beautifully printed, making the interaction even more enjoyable.
Most of the photographs in Cousins were taken in Cambridge, Massachusetts, or at beaches, ponds, and woods near Emack’s childhood home in Connecticut, and span the years of girls’ young lives. In the opening photograph, three girls stand against lush tree leaves, the tallest one locks her arms behind her head while the other two girls gently hug her waist. The image reflects the warm and close relationship between the girls. The next picture captures two young girls lying on the floor, illuminated by the light coming through the patterned curtain, which creates captivating shapes; the shadow of a cat is seen in the lower part of the photo, making it even more magical.
Throughout Cousins, Emack portrays girls and their everyday lives. One of the earlier images in the series shows two girls of the same age standing knee deep in water, and as they look at each other as their hands touch. The picture is filled with close tenderness, and as the series evolves and the girls grow up, their bonds only get deeper. In another photograph, a girl lays on the ground with a paper masquerade mask on her forehead, while the hands of another girl draw a chalk crown on the floor behind her. There are photographs of the girls playing outside, swimming, laying in bed with their shoes on, climbing trees, having a picnic in a park, and other small moments of grace.
The second to last image was taken last summer at Walden Pond in Massachusetts and shows two girls standing in the water up to their waists, photographed from the back looking out across the pond. Emack says this is the photograph that for her ends the series. The last image is a close up of cousins girls hugging, bringing the loving connection full circle.
Emack’s project brings to mind another book with a focus on young Black women, Revival by Nydia Blas (reviewed here). In the series, Blas takes a collaborative approach to photographing teenage girls she met through a Girls Empowerment Group, which she set up to support young girls of color in Ithaca. And while there are some parallels between Emack’s project and Blas’s work, Emack digs deeper into the intimacies of childhood, with its energy, first experiences, and tender emotions.
Cousins is a subtly elegant publication, enlivened by thoughtful sequencing and editing. It portrays caring and sympathetic moments between the girls as they grow up together, their bonds and devotion to each other evolving over time. The message it delivers is similarly powerful, as the photographs reflect the love the girls have for each other, as well as Emack’s love for them. Cousins stands out in recent photographic depictions of black childhood for its enriching sense of joy, pride, and compassionate warmth.
Collector’s POV: Kristen Joy Emack is represented by Gallery Kayafas in Boston (here). Her work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.