Words on Stranger Than Family by Michael Weinstein
Do not be fooled by Matthew Avignone's unprepossessing photo-book that takes us inside the life-world of his American family. Its scenes of everyday activities, studies of artifacts, and informal portraits do not, indeed, conceal a hidden sub-text; they are on the surface as they appear to be. Yet that surface has been constructed by a photographer who is well versed in critical theory and who has taken great pains to create an unassuming effect.
The title of the book, Stranger than Family, tips us off to the photographer's strategy. Avignone does not explain that enigmatic title. His photographs depict the members of his family, what they do, and their surroundings in a manner that makes them appear to be anything but strange. Doubtless, the Avignones are not ordinary, in the sense that Matt is the eldest of five children who were born in Asia and were adopted at infancy or shortly later by Mike and Pam Avignone who are white middle-class Midwestern Americans. In addition, some of the children suffer from birth defects or congenital diseases, and the parents gladly gave them care and love. Yet there is nothing strange about that, as the photographer would affirm; Mike and Pam are not strange, they are exceptional people in the best sense, and the book is, in part, a tribute to them. But it is more than that. The enigma of the title remains.
One can begin to solve the mystery by understanding what Matt Avignone has not done. He has not made any of the familiar moves that have become associated with family photography. He has not sentimentalized, heroicized, or otherwise "humanized" his family. He has not shown them at moments of triumphant ecstasy or of struggle against adversity. There is nothing to inspire viewers here in conventional ways nor to move them to condescend or pity. From the other side, there is no hint of rancor, resentment, or grievance in Avignone's images. He has not used the camera to settle scores, because, presumably, there are none to settle. He has not offered the occasion for schadenfreude or gossip. His images do not titillate or sensationalize. Considering the many ways in which Avignone could have laden his images with obtrusive emotional effect, it is remarkable that he has avoided all of them. Instead, he has presented his family as the people next door, neighbors and friends, the way we know them remember them, and think of them "proximally and for the most part" as Martin Heidegger put it. That, in itself, is, of course, a strategy too, but it is one of sanity, which is quite strange in contemporary photography, and quite welcome.
Avignone's images focus on "average everydayness" with any pejorative sense of Heidegger's term removed. People have dinner, curl up and relax, mow the lawn, solve a jigsaw puzzle, go shopping, and idle in the family car; and they celebrate Christmas and the Fourth of July. They do all those things naturally, without excess or defect of emotion, and without going to extremes. Too well composed to be snapshots and too unstudied to be formal set-ups, Avignone's images are based on a photographic strategy that fits like a glove the meaning that guides the substance of his project - let us root ourselves in the lives that we actually lead, most of the time; let us have a realistic baseline for any of our excursions beyond it.
To have constructed such a return to the everyday through his representations of his family as it grew in number and age is an important achievement and would make his book worthy of study and enjoyment of the gift that realist photography gives - alerting us to the life-world around us that we often overlook because it is too familiar to us, which makes us miss the details. Avignone's photography fixes moments like sitting on a hilltop looking down on a green expanse interrupted only by a lone small figure. We can put ourselves there and that is what Avignone wants us to do. He makes us participants in his family's life-world, never voyeurs. Again, he makes his family our neighbors, not our intimates.
Avignone's contribution to centering ourselves is welcome, but he has done something else; he has not imported into his images the prevalent themes of cultural identity crisis and cultural politics. There is no sense that Avignone or anyone else in his family has a problem with being a Korean-American or other Asian-American, or the parents of adopted Asian children. There is no sense of alienation, marginalization, transitional identity, or Otherness. The Avignones are an American family despite, indeed, because of the especially good people that Pam and Mike are. All kinds of families make up the contemporary American scene, each with its own particularities, all of them belonging to a new and emerging social mosaic, and the Avignones are one of them, as Matt so tellingly and unassumingly shows. The Avignones are post-marginalized; they are assimilated into the American diversity and need not be self-conscious about their cultural identity in the American heartland, in Bourbonnais, Illinois. That is what is stranger than family - the new American society, the strongest and healthiest aspect of which Avignone presents to us without flag-waving frenetic "patriotism," but with the steadiness of everyday life.
The book begins with two images of Korean baby clothes against white backgrounds and ends with its most exquisite and artful impression showing Pam and Mike from behind standing in the night watching a fireworks display burst forth into flashes of white light. Between those poles are slices of life indicative of a story of growth, maturation, aging, and fulfillment.