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Powells.com
Saturday, July 6th, 2002


 

Chris Verene

by

A review by Leah Bobal

The cover image on photographer Chris Verene's first book offers up a technicolor slice of America. Pictured are Verene's cousin Candi and her husband sitting at a long table during their wedding reception. Standing are two elderly men in Western shirts and cowboy hats — they are Candi's favorite customers from her job at the Sirloin Stockade. Behind them hangs a framed American flag. The colors — various hues of red, white and blue — are lush, bringing a sparkle to ordinary life.

Ordinary life is what Verene knows best. This book is the culmination of 13 years of Verene's examination of those people and places dear to his heart. "I wanted to make honest pictures of my family, that told their true story in a manner that anyone could understand," he writes in the introduction. "I make these pictures to reflect my own love and understanding of humanity."

Galesburg, Illinois (hometown of writer Carl Sandburg) is the primary setting for the photos in this book. It is a central Illinois town where Verene grew up, and where most of his family still resides. And though Verene describes Galesburg as "rich with everything I know about America" the town and its inhabitants are poor.

His family's struggle with the dark undertones of small town life — divorce, death and poverty —- is colorfully captured with dignity and respect. None of the shots are posed, none of the stories are staged, though many of the images almost look like stills from a movie (the bright colors and bizarreness conjure up Edward Scissorhands, of all things).

The most surreal photo shows Steve, Verene's cousin, half-turned, looking over his shoulder. He is holding a freshly painted hubcap in his hands. Two more hubcaps hang from an out of commission swingset. The peculiar look captured on his face lends an eerie quality to the image — almost as if a UFO is about to land in his backyard.

Yet, most of the photos therein are so truthful that they almost have an everyday, snapshot-like quality; turn the page and it feels like looking through a family photo album. This book is a telling collection not unlike photogragher Nan Goldin's work in Couples and Loneliness. From the room of a nursing home where a relative is dying, to the sunny streets of Galesburg, Verene connects us to people who may go unnoticed — small town, working class folk who live simple lives. They could be our family, our friends, our neighbors.

"I make this art to help people and as I grow older, I know that much goodwill and learning will grow from reading this book," Verene states at the start of the book. This series is heartfelt, intriguing and honest — a celebration of American life far more dazzling than any Fouth of July fireworks.


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