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Book Review: Father Figure


Book Review Father Figure By Zun Lee Reviewed by Tom Leininger There are a many ideas of what fatherhood is: the stern taskmaster who refuses to accept less than perfection, the distant father who is consumed by work, the father indulgent in material things but not emotions. The portrait of masculinity presented in Zun Lee’s book Father Figure goes against a number of stereotypes in popular culture. This book is about the fathers who are present in the lives of their children and aims to demystify the concept of the absent black father.

Father Figure. By Zun Lee. 
Ceiba, 2014.
 
Father Figure
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Father Figure: Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood
Photographs by Zun Lee. Foreword by Teju Cole, Epilogue by Trymaine Lee.
Ceiba, New York, 2014. 128 pp., 61 duotone illustrations, 12¼x8¼".


There are a many ideas of what fatherhood is: the stern taskmaster who refuses to accept less than perfection, the distant father who is consumed by work, the father indulgent in material things but not emotions. The portrait of masculinity presented in Zun Lee’s book Father Figure goes against a number of stereotypes in popular culture. This book is about the fathers who are present in the lives of their children and aims to demystify the concept of the absent black father. Informed by his childhood experiences, Lee set out to photograph the fathers and father figures who are there for others. Father Figure makes a strong but tender statement about black fatherhood.

Father Figure. By Zun Lee. Ceiba, 2014.

It is always a joy to find a photographer with a point of view and something to say. This is a topic that has seen little photographic coverage and Lee is able to bring his unique view to it. This is a content-rich book. Lee entered the lives of his subjects and worked in a way that is fresh, but not reliant on aesthetics. There are a few pictures I wish were not included; one early on is badly back focused and a few others seem a little obvious as compared to the images surrounding them. Lee is a relative newcomer to photography, but he has some serious chops when it comes to dealing with people and making elegant pictures in what might not seem like dramatic surroundings. He respects his subjects and lets their emotions come to the forefront.

Photography has the unique ability to freeze and record quiet times and contextualize them so they can shout a larger statement. Note the adoring look on Carlos Richardson’s face while holding an armload of stuffed animals, waiting for Selah’s next direction for their game; later in the book he holds her while visiting an aquarium and the light from above frames them dramatically. Father Figure gets its strength from images like these — everyday events that happen so often their meaning gets lost in the stream of life.

Father Figure. By Zun Lee. Ceiba, 2014.

The photograph of Jerell Willis and Fidel brush their teeth together in a small bathroom shows how Lee was able to integrate himself into these routine life events. They are all inches apart from another. Willis seems to be thinking about something, the day ahead, or the one just lived, and Fidel is doing his best to get a back tooth clean. I am reminded both of my own childhood and now my life as a parent, how at times it is not easy to convince my son to brush his teeth and how at other times he challenges me to see who did a better job brushing. As a viewer, I don’t know the specifics of their lives, but I know how this moment goes.

Father Figure. By Zun Lee. Ceiba, 2014.

By their nature photographs leave a lot of information out. Texts are used sparingly through the book and the introduction by Teju Cole and a personal essay by Lee help the reader to understand what the photographs leave out. Trymaine Lee’s closing essay shines the light of reality on the life around these pictures. His points are spot on and help to elevate the book.

Father Figure. By Zun Lee. Ceiba, 2014.

This is the kind of book that needs to be seen and shared, especially in the current political times in which we are living. The subtitle is Exploring Alternate Notions of Black Fatherhood; the book accomplishes this goal and does so without being mired in sentimentality. Father Figure is the kind of book that gives me hope that the documentary tradition is alive and well. The book is nuanced and complex, yet full of clarity. It is the kind of book that needs to be used as an example of the power of the still photograph in book form. Too often photographers go for the visually dramatic to make a statement. Lee went in the opposite direction and found the subtle richness of life.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.


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