Glen Erler - Family Tree

Memory, family and making sense of one’s past through photographs, are at the center of American photographer Glen Erler’s new monongraph ‘Family Tree’.  The book documents his return visits to California to find the family and locations remembered from his youth. Writer Enda Walsh sums up Erler's project in the foreword to the book by saying ‘It is a devastatingly beautiful and delicate document of his family, and an honest portrayal of the boy he was then and the man that he has become.’

Chloe True: Can you tell me about your background in photography? 

Glen Erler: I didn't formally study photography. I was at University in California and remember feeling I had reached a point where a change was at hand. I was studying mostly business-oriented courses but also happened to have an art history class, which really struck a cord in me. I then started to travel to Europe on occasion where I began noticing more and more photography, and where there were a few photographers who's work I found somewhat interesting and was attracted to the individuality in their approach. Around that time, my dad had given me an old Pentax 35mm camera that I kept with me, I would photograph friends and occasionally the people I would come across when traveling. I developed a small body of work that was mostly portrait oriented and that was also mostly derived from Polaroid film. That was the beginning and my interest kept growing from there. I do think that I've always felt an importance in seeking out an individual voice, but it's been a long road and I still sometimes feel that I'm only at the beginning.

CT: How important is the narrative aspect of photography to you and how would you say you convey it through your work?

GE: When I first started taking pictures, it was more of a technical experiment and was merely exciting to see images come out on some form of film, and then as prints. I think I spent quite a long period working towards something else, but wasn't quite sure what that was. There was still a technical discovery process taking place and concentration on making interesting single images. There is a lot of emphasis put on this when doing portraits or more editorial based work. You tend to think one image at a time and the narrative is or can be quite subtle. It's not very often that there is a requirement for a series of images and even more rare that there is enough space to place a long complex narrative driven body of work anywhere other than in book form. There are some nice fashion based magazines that allow this but it is advertising driven so there are still limitations with narrative and also space. As time as moved on, for me, it's very important to have some form of a narrative. It gives the images meaning and structure. I like to work with an overall idea that then creates a purpose. At that point, the process is just beginning but at least there's a reason for being there.

CT: When did you start taking the series of photographs that later became ‘Family Tree’?

GE: I had been working on a series of images based on adolescence and was mostly going back to California whenever possible. It was near to the beginning of that project that I found myself seeking out family members who I used to spend a lot of my time with as a kid, and finding that their lives, still being in the same area that we grew up in, were somewhat running parallel to mine but many years before. I was mostly photographing their kids who were quite close to the age I was when my parents separated, and I had to leave that area. A large portion of these images became a part of my adolescence series and through that series, even though I knew it was based on childhood memory; I began to notice something deeper was developing. 

I was quite open and still searching at this point and decided to photograph my cousin Joel one day while visiting he and his mother. I remember him being a very stoic and somewhat mysterious figure during my childhood years. He was drafted and ended up in Viet Nam, and seemed to return a different man, being quiet and removed and following the path of a devout Christian of which he still follows today. 

After I had photographed Joel, his mother, my aunt Holly was showing me some photographs of her daughter Dinah who had died of AIDS in the 80s and that were hanging in the hallway. I decided to photograph my aunt holding one of the pictures of Dinah and after doing so knew that this was the beginning of what I had been looking for. My aunt then went on to tell me the story of how her sons had planted a sapling in the front yard on the day she was buried. The title Family Tree loosely entered the equation at that point and the project was more or less under way.

CT: Your family members are typically photographed alone, illuminated by sunlight and reflected in windows or obscured by shadows and screens. Can you tell me about your approach to capturing your relatives?

GE: I can't really put my finger on the reason why I do this. It's not only evident in Family Tree but is also a part of my work in general. I like layers between myself and the person I'm photographing and don't feel it's important to reveal everything about what is going on in front of me. It's a storyline in a sense and the person or object is a part of that story. Each image is made of several components to me and I like each image to make a whole. If a part is missing or too obvious, it normally gets edited out. There is the odd occasion where I do a fairly straightforward portrait of someone with nothing between us, but it's not very often. It needs to be for the right reason and answer the questions at hand. I don't normally set out to do this but it can happen. Working with my family as willing subjects, I still didn't feel a need to reveal them in a literal sense. They helped me to carry out thoughts and played a role in doing so. 

I also think that as the project grew and continued, the images became even more ambiguous. I think I was a different person, or at least in a different state of mind, when I started Family Tree compared to when I considered it finished. I was living a somewhat normal life and looking at picture taking from that perspective. By the time Family Tree was finished, I had children, was then divorced and then my father was gone. I was looking at taking pictures through different eyes during those stages and I think that that is reflected when looking at the results from each period. 

CT: There is a visual likeness to the Family Tree project in your editorial work. How does your approach to photographing subjects such as Roisin Murphy and Natalie Press differ from photographing your family?

GE: There isn't much difference to be honest. The only concern I have with commissions like those is the lack of time. In both of those cases, I had thought through what I wanted to do and what would work within the time frame I had been allocated before starting to take the photographs. 

With Natalie, I spoke to her a few times and met with her before we started working together to make sure we were of like minds and that she was comfortable with my thoughts and direction. We then went to the area where she grew up so there was a personal connection for her and this gave the images a purpose or narrative so to speak. In a way, it was looking back for her and this made the reason for being there more clear, for us and hopefully for the viewer as well. With Roisin, it was a similar process but I only had one day with her and therefore the idea needed to be centred around that limitation. Again, I was able to speak to Roisin before we met in order to go through some thoughts I had. I think there needs to be a certain amount of letting go for someone in the public eye. 

I'm not a believer in using things to alter someone's appearance unless it's a part of the idea so in most cases this is one of the things that needs to be clear before I start. Even though I'm creating a sort of narrative or storyline with my commissioned based work, or at least in these instances, even what a person is wearing is as important as the rest of what's in the framing. The same goes for Family Tree and my other work. I often change what a person is wearing and will often shift things in and/or out of the surrounding environment if it doesn't sit right within the frame. One difference might be that with Family Tree I was able to make the images and then ponder them to work out if something could be improved upon. There were a couple of instances where I would like the idea behind the photograph but would feel the image itself could be better. If possible, I would go back and fix what I felt needed fixing. It wasn't about trying to repeat something or re-do something but rather re-thinking it and improving upon what had already been done. It often became a different photograph entirely. With Natalie and Roisin, there was no going back. 

CT: Many of the photographs within Family Tree are accompanied by text. What inspired you to situate the related text at the back of the book in a section titled ‘Thoughts’ and not beside the images?

GE: There was a part of me that always intended to have text for every image. This was a part of my thought process from the onset. As the project evolved, the text remained a part of the idea and also lead me to seeking out places and people who were important to me but it also felt as though it was too much for every image to have something said about it. The stories that accompany some of the images also felt right in the choices made but to have the text on the same page or even the facing page didn't work for me from a design perspective. I also didn't want to force the reader to have to connect an image with a story so by putting the text in the back it both looked better and also gave the reader the option of learning more if they chose to. 

Family Tree is quite a personal series of images for me but it's also meant to be looked at by the viewer and how they and their families are connected and what got them to where and how they are today, the decisions they make and how they make them and also what and who influenced them within their family structure. The cycle of life and death is an emotional and often complicated journey so along with the viewer or audience being able to look into their own make up, it's also being able to accept an ending to all of this as we know it. I personally am still working on that part.

CT: What influenced the layout and the sequence of images within the book?

GE: I think I always had an idea of how the end product was going to look. Saying that, when it comes time to putting a book together it can take on a life of it's own. You may start off in one place and end up in another. I put the project in front the design team Mark Tappin and Simon Gofton once I felt I was nearing an end. I showed them the prints and went through the story along with my ideas on how it should hopefully end up looking and the design aspect began from there. It was a long process in my case but I knew it wasn't a chronologically based story and that it needed to work as an overall body of work from a visual perspective. 

Nothing has been left in that I felt didn't work as a complete photograph. There were a few that came out towards the end that had been a part of the project since very early on but then I felt the story had moved on from there and as odd as it was to take them out, it had to be done. There is no specific order to any of the images. There are clusters that were taken at or near the same time and place, therefore worked in a rather clear manner and needed to be positioned close together. The same with the opening of the book of my aunt Holly. They were the first images taken for Family Tree and were always intended to be the opening sequence. There are several other images that needed to be next to or near to one another as they were taken from my perspective of the person I was photographing and also from their perspective. In other words, the images we see are of them but I then would photograph what they were looking at as well making each image important in connection to the other. 

The variation of sizes for the images simply felt right. There are a 105 images included so I felt that there needed to be a variation in both size and placement. Mark came up with a sort of grid and we came up with several sizes that worked well. There is a formula to the different sizes but most importantly they work well together and held our attention. Family Tree is also partly about change and how little and/or how much of it takes place in our life time so I felt the images needed to change size and position for that reason as well. People tend to connect memory to melancholy but I don't see it that way so by keeping the images at one size and to the same side of the page throughout the book didn't feel right or appropriate. Yes, memory takes us back but we're still present today. It's always been a contemporary approach for me and about a view on family life from today's perspective. I wanted the finished product to reflect that, making the design aspect play a vital role in doing so. In a sense, time is movement. Things change and move. 

CT: The book ends with a series of images taken after the death of your father. Did his passing feel like a natural conclusion to the project?

GE: Yes. It's a very hard thing to speak clearly about. There is a written piece in Family Tree about it but it's still not as clear as I would like it to be. I did feel some form of closure. I knew his death would entail some form of picture taking but I wasn't sure how I was going to go about that. I also knew there would be a lot to do in a short amount of time. I had to set a time limit due having my own children in London who happened to be in New York visiting family at the time. I couldn't tell them. I waited until I came back from California and had let it settle, even if only a little bit. It was a very surreal experience and still hard to speak about in a way that makes sense but it did feel like an appropriate time to say the end of the book was near. 

CT: You have lovingly dedicated the book to your daughters Devi and Lila.  How do you feel about the book and the depiction of your family in relation to them? 

GE: I feel as though Family Tree will always be there for them to have some form of an insight into how my life was and to look back on members of their family that they don't necessarily get to spend much time with. It helps them stay attached to that side of their life of which is me. We have our lives here in London but I spent a large portion of my life in areas depicted in Family Tree and I feel lucky that it's there for them to look at if and when they have the desire to do so. 

They have been with me on several occasions when I was taking pictures for Family Tree and this allows them to have their own take on those images and connect them to their family in their chosen way. We have sang songs together with my father when he was alive and have also laid together on his grave after he passed away. They have already formed their own thoughts but they will keep expanding with time. It was a choice that I made early on to not include them in the book. I started to but then felt it was a separate story. It was about me witnessing my surroundings and my own way of thinking about my past and my family in general. What and who shaped me as a person along the way and how that connects other peoples views on their own lives through birth and death and all that happens in between. My life with them is about now and the present as well as our future together. They are forming their own opinions and having their own experiences so it felt more important to share mine with them rather than try to make my experiences theirs. The pain associated with the thought of inevitably not being with them can be overwhelming but at least there are these pieces of paper with photographs on them that will last for a while longer.

To purchase a copy of Family Tree click HERE.

Glen Erler will be giving a talk about his work in Brighton on May 13th. For more information click HERE.

— Chloe True