What is revealed by watching someone in his or her home environment? San Francisco-based photographer Beth Yarnelle Edwards makes this the central question of Suburban Dreams, now on view at the Oakland Museum of California as the second of three exhibitions in the California Photography series.
Edwards initiated the project in 1997, first asking friends if they would allow her to photograph them in their homes. Long interested in how individuals or families shape the spaces they inhabit, and how those constructed physical and psychological environments in turn shape the occupants, Edwards eventually expanded her study to include friends of friends and later strangers, many of whom lived near the photographer in San Jose. Over the course of 16 years, Edwards broadened her study to include those outside her home territory in far-flung locales including Iceland and Europe.
Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Samantha (At Bat), 2001
As the photographer describes it, the interaction with her subjects is simple: she sets an initial meeting, during which she introduces herself, and describes the project and how a session usually takes place. Additional meetings in which the photographer visits her subjects in their house, so as to familiarize herself with the space and the manner in which the individuals conduct themselves at home, follow that initial contact. Finally, a photo shoot is scheduled, during which Edwards works with her subjects to recreate a scene from their daily lives. The results run a wide gamut — everything from a woman playing catch with her children in the garage, to a hostess preparing for a formal dinner, to a man tending his front yard. In each photograph, the notion of a sunny, untroubled existence so often associated with life in California is reinforced.
Edwards is an able photographer who has mastered the components that make an image pleasing to look at. Moreover, the colorful, highly saturated quality of her photographs successfully conveys key aspects of her sitter’s lives — all that is lush, be that an interior or outdoor setting, and all that is comfortable and safe in a suburban setting. The compositions are not perfect, however, or at least her sitters are not perfect.
Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Colby (Colby’s Music), 2001
In Colby (Colby’s Music), the children of the family were encouraged to step in front of Edwards’ camera and be at their most natural. The oldest child, Colby, mugs for the camera while in the background, his parents and younger siblings go about their day. In a direct reference to Diego Velazquez’s masterpiece of sight and psychological tension Las Meninas (1656), the little princess has ceded her position of power to the older sibling. He, in turn, blatantly ignores the rest of his family in favor of capturing his 15 minutes of fame.
In accompanying text, Edwards repeatedly describes her artistic practice as a pursuit of “the real.” What “the real” is as pertains to photography is, at best, a fraught subject, and Edwards’ assertion that her photographs capture what is most real falls short. Certainly, she works with her subjects to recreate scenes from their daily lives, and Edwards is quick to state that the scenarios are not unscripted interactions. But in trying to capture what is most real about these subjects, Edwards fully eliminates the authenticity or the potential for honesty in those exchanges. What we are left with is a visually satisfying, yet ultimately shallow take on affluence and both the joys and anxieties it fosters.
Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Dyanne, 1998
While this visitor isn’t sold on Edwards’ strenuous assertion that it is the real she captures, what did strike me was the timeliness of a photographic series highlighting wealth. In the nearly five years since the economic meltdown that plunged the United States into recession, the reliability of the middle class as an indefatigable economic engine has been shattered. In Suburban Dreams, we are given a glimpse of what was once the bar to which so many in the middle class aspired and a rare few achieved, and is now even further out of reach.
Suburban Dreams is on view through June 30, 2013 at the Oakland Museum of California. For more information, visit museumca.org.