The curious fatalism of Chris Verene’s Family

Verene confirms everything you thought you knew about Midwestern yokels

Chris Verene’s been photographing his extended family in Galesburg, Ill., for 25 years. He’s chronicled his cousin Candi’s marriage and divorce, his cousin Steve’s estrangement from his daughters, and the birth and growth of perhaps a dozen kids as they lurch in and out of adolescence.

Twenty of these photos are collected in Family, currently on view at Marcia Wood Gallery. The series of color documentary photographs tells the idiosyncratic story of hardscrabble lives in a hardscrabble town. “The State Took Custody of Amber’s Girls” depicts Amber in ill-fitting clothes as she touches the windshield of a car that appears to be carrying her daughters away. But the photo might equally refer to the car in which she had been living with the girls when times got tough.

The same drama resumes later that same year in “Amber Got Her Girls Back and Now They Live in the Abandoned Restaurant.” Someone’s shoved a filthy mattress where the table of a booth once was and the girls are playing on it like any 3- or 4-year-old girls, unaware of their reduced circumstances.

Verene shoots as life unfolds around him. He doesn’t pose his subjects, although they sometimes choose to pose themselves. The photographer’s known his subjects for almost three decades and that accounts for the sweetly awkward family photo aesthetic on display. That feeling is reinforced by the snippets of narrative written below each photo, evoking the vanishing practice of scribbling notes on family pictures.

Verene was born in Galesburg, but attended high school, college and graduate school in Atlanta. His career hit its stride in 2000 when the Whitney Biennial acknowledged in a rare move that art actually exists south of Staten Island and trundled him off along with Atlantans Robin Bernat and Kojo Griffin into the national spotlight.

Family must have taken courage. Verene’s love for his family and friends stands exposed like a slightly embarrassing diary entry. His tender dedication to a project of many decades leaves no question about where his allegiances lie: with the elderly residents of a “research” mental hospital in “Rozie’s Mother’s Birthday,” and with the smiling Candi who’s lost her husband, home and job in an Olympics of misfortune.

Emory photography historian Jason Francisco has compared Verene to documentary photographer Jacob Riis, whose images of New York’s down and out were meant to provoke outrage and spark social reform. But that’s where Verene’s moral hazard lies. Unlike other photographers who have gained the keys to private worlds — think Larry Clark and Diane Arbus — Verene confirms rather than overturns everything you thought you knew about Midwestern yokels: that they’re all slightly weird, hapless and overweight.

Riis’ photographs dissected the detail of systemic poverty with a European’s sense of social context. But Verene is deeply American. In his world, misfortune is individual and personal, not social and systemic. Calamity is something that seems to drop from the sky, and the best his subjects can do is put on a brave face and muddle through. It’s a curious form of fatalism that values resignation over action, sentimentality over anger.

There’s no doubt Verene is motivated by love. Family is sweet and moving, but what it moves us toward may ultimately be a dead end.