Susan Kandel, At Home

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover (30 × 24 cm), 112 pages, with 58 black and white photographs. Includes a text by the artist. Design by the entente, UK, and Scans Kent Rodzwicz, USA. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Starting in the late 1970s, Susan Kandel spent over a decade documenting several families inside their homes in rural Massachusetts, and earlier this year, she published this body of work in a photobook entitled At Home. As the title suggests, Kandel captures her subjects in their intimate domestic environments, and her series provides a glimpse of their daily lives and humble surroundings. In 1991, one of the photographs for the project was included in the exhibition “Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Curated by Peter Galassi, it included over 150 images by more than seventy artists. And while this inclusion may have provided a measure of recognition at the time, it has taken over four decades for a book of the entire series to be published.

At Home immediately stands out as a carefully crafted object. A tipped-in round black and white portrait of a young girl in a white dress (which seems a bit too small) appears on a dusty green cover. She looks right into the camera, her facial expression somewhere between discontent and guilt. This introduction to the book definitely feels intriguing and exciting. The book has been lovingly printed, and the design is genuinely consistent and simple. All of the photographs are placed on the right side of the spread, and while horizontally oriented photobooks don’t always work well, this book is a rare exception. The book easily lays flat making the interaction even more enjoyable. 

A photograph of a young girl with a balloon standing at the entrance to a house opens the narrative. She is deep in her thoughts and unaware of the camera, yet the image still feels quite fitting, as the visual flow proceeds to take us inside people’s homes. Right after this image, there is a short text by Kandel providing the context for the series. In October 1979, she was photographing families that came to see Pope John Paul II, who was visiting the Boston Common. Two women she met there invited her to come to their homes to take pictures, and the photos she took visiting them over the next ten years turned into this series. 

All of the photographs are black and white, and framed very tightly, filling the space with people and their usually busy surroundings. “I liked rooms that had some evidence of the lives of folks who lived there,” Kandel says. There is an undeniable intimacy between the photographer and her subjects,  as they seem to let their guard down and just be themselves. Her photographs just grab the moments, and there is a lot going on in every shot. There are no captions, yet as Kandel notes in the introduction, “each home offered up stories – or suggestion of stories.”

One of the photographs captures a conversation between two mothers, the woman on the right is caught with her mouth slightly open and making a gesture with her hand. The three young children around her look completely consumed by her story and even a toddler in the other woman’s arms is listening. In another shot, the father is on the sofa embracing his son a bit too hard with a loving kiss, squashing his face, while a younger child is sleeping on the other side of the sofa. Like many other Kandel’s photographs, this one is at once funny and disturbing.   

Kandel’s best images capture candid scenes of family lives, often with their dense mix of chaos and tender moments. There are shots capturing family gatherings for birthday and Christmas celebrations, parents hugging their kids, children carelessly playing around. All of them have layers of activities in one frame. One photo captures a busy scene in the kitchen with the family members around the birthday cake, the father puts the cake down while the mother helps their young daughter to blow out the candles; nearby an older girl observes the celebration while holding a teddy bear and a toy gun. 

Kandel is definitely interested in children, capturing them as they mostly entertain themselves. One of the pictures shows us her niece, getting ready for her first communion. She is in her white dress and stands still watching TV, looking a little bit expectant and impatient. There is a good amount of clutter in the room, almost standing in contrast to the girl’s neat outfit. In another picture, a girl with headphones and Walkman plays with two ducks placed on the piano keyboard, and it’s hard not to notice how busy her surroundings are. In another photo, a girl stands on a bunk bed ladder looking straight into the camera while her younger sibling is lying in bed. And in yet another image, a boy stands in a room full of moving boxes, he has an American flag in his mouth, and there is a poster on the wall with a tiger and the word “thrilling” at the top. Each of Kandel’s compositions feels filled with action, the movements often overlapped or independent of one another. 

Kandel is among a notable group of female photographers who built up sustained bodies of work documenting the lives of families in 1980s America. Sheron Rupp spent decades sensitively documenting the rhythms of rural American life (her book Taken From Memory is reviewed here) and Jo Ann Walters pays nuanced attention to the overlooked lives of Midwestern women in Wood River Blue Pool (reviewed here). And Mary Frey’s excellent photobook Reading Raymond Carver (reviewed here) offers pitch perfect moments from late 1970s suburban America shot in large format black and white.

At Home is a consistently impressive and significant publication, and a valuable rediscovered contribution in the long history of picturing American families. With its impeccable design and beautiful photographs, this photobook stands out as one of the strongest published this year. 

Collector’s POV: Susan Kandel does not appear to have gallery representation at this time, nor does she appear to have an artist’s website. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect with her publisher Stanley/Barker to facilitate an introduction.

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