Photographer: Frances F. Denny (born San Francisco, CA; resides Brooklyn, NY)
Publisher: Radius Books, Santa Fe, NM, © 2015
Essay: Lisa Locascio
Cloth-bound sewn hardcover, protective transparent acetate dust cover; 108 pages, color lithography; 36 9×9 inch images, a composite sepia leporello fold-out, and the reproduction of a sampler; 10×10.5 inches, printed in Italy
Photobook Designer: David Chickey
All of us have been recipients of the expectations and prescriptions of the generations that came before us. Occasionally these conventions and social mores have kept us under what we might have considered unwarranted constraints, or might have caused us traumatic conflicts that had to be resisted and/or resolved as our own development in life proceeded. I wanted to review this book because I consider it an important contribution to intergenerational understanding and individual development.
In this volume Frances F. Denny examines the impact of previous generations on her as well as other women in New England today. Her images present women of her family spanning several generations, along with their accoutrements and surroundings. They are also quoted as they evaluate traditions and admonitions that have been passed down to them, both in New England and from Europe. The photographs are all in color and seem to present a world that is cheerful and in order, with occasional signs of unrest or disturbances showing through the veneer. Most of the images are accompanied by historical material as well as by short personal quotes and anecdotes from the women’s lives. Some of these expectations have always been explicit, others implicit. Examples are: “In my family the default was decorum, but with kindness” (p. 27), or: “A lot was unsaid. I think more up-front talking would have been helpful” (p. 37), or: “Don’t talk about yourself too much.” (p. 53) Among the problems that are dealt with: the suppression of emotions; the pros and cons of entitlement; alcoholism; taking advantage of those below you in the social hierarchy and the guilt associated with that; the problem of exhibiting slight imperfections; and many others.
It is interesting to observe the portraits of the women of several generations against the background of the many struggles necessary on the road to self-actualization and assertiveness. Denny makes a special effort to contrast two generations in some of the images as well as in the pairing of images. The pictures are captioned, and care is taken to display some of the women without showing their faces, so that it is possible to project oneself into the character and her moment and to imagine one’s situation to be similar. Page 85 presents a leporello-type fold-out that shows three pictures from a wedding in the early 1940s, including two of the bride: a perfectly organized tableau, behind which conflicted feelings regarding past and future might also be lurking. The “primer” by Lisa Locascio takes us from definitions of virtue as compulsory moral excellence to the stage of self-discovery and personal redefinition, as the process of one’s individuation proceeds. The book ends with the picture of an old needlepoint “sampler” as a reminder of this former test of marriage-worthiness that also displays all the “right” expectations and prescriptions from long ago.
An important work with much food for thought and a very attractive design as well!
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