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Book Review: The Hereditary Estate


Book Review The Hereditary Estate By Daniel Coburn Reviewed by David Ondrik Daniel W. Coburn’s The Hereditary Estate is his first monograph, and serves two functions. It is a career retrospective combining ten years of Coburn’s imagery and it also re-imagines the family photo album.

The Hereditary Estate. By Daniel Coburn.
Kehrer Verlag, 2015.
 
The Hereditary Estate
Reviewed by David Ondrik

The Hereditary Estate
Photographs by Daniel Coburn
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 2015. 112 pp., 9x11½x¾".


Daniel W. Coburn’s The Hereditary Estate is his first monograph, and serves two functions. It is a career retrospective combining ten years of Coburn’s imagery and it also re-imagines the family photo album. Published by Kehrer Verlag, the book has 112 pages with 76 superb duotone photographic reproductions. It is hardcover with a “Swiss binding,” which means that the signatures are not attached to the spine of the book. Upon swinging the book open, the viewer is confronted with the red-tinted photograph of Coburn’s father holding a gun against his head juxtaposed with a found photograph of a woman, hair in curlers, holding her head in her hands in an ambiguous expression of angst, embarrassment, or maybe laughter.

The Hereditary Estate. By Daniel Coburn. Kehrer Verlag, 2015.

This visual introduction does as much to alert the viewer to the book’s content as the introductory essay by Karen Irvine, curator and associate director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography at Columbia College. Irvine, in a digestible jargon-free essay, discusses Coburn’s critique of the family album, specifically the way that uncomfortable and tense moments of family life are edited away when compiling such keepsakes. Mom and dad hate each other? In the photo album they’ll be arm in arm, smiling.

The Hereditary Estate. By Daniel Coburn. Kehrer Verlag, 2015.

But not in Coburn’s book. Much of the imagery is straight up portraiture and landscape, not exactly candid moments but not especially choreographed either. These are often played off each other for dramatic effect, such as the spread that has a portrait of Coburn’s mother on the left and a burning prairie on the right. The photograph of his father, vulnerable, curled up on an oil-stained concrete floor is especially moving. Another stand-out of his father portrays him, possibly asleep, with torn-out photographs of model’s eyes placed over his own. It is a fun reference to Robert Heinecken’s magazine images from the 1980s, and a welcome piece of frivolity in an otherwise heavy portfolio.

The Hereditary Estate. By Daniel Coburn. Kehrer Verlag, 2015.

There are also staged photographs that evoke the performance images of Duane Michals and pre-Weimaraner William Wegman. Some feel heavy-handed, but two of the most successful are towards the end of the book: a photo of Coburn spitting liquid into the air, opposite a ghostly sheet blowing in a wood-paneled room. The liquid from Coburn’s mouth is transformed by depth of field and lighting into a magical cloud of glitter, while the sheet on the facing page appears to be hurled by Coburn’s breath.

The Hereditary Estate. By Daniel Coburn. Kehrer Verlag, 2015.


Found antique photographs, altered either digitally or physically, are scattered throughout the book. These images recall Coburn’s MFA thesis, Domestic Reliquary, also a series of found, heavily manipulated, antique photographs. Their inclusion may be an attempt to pull The Hereditary Estate away from Coburn’s specific family and expand the book’s reach. However, the found photographs struck me as jarring and incongruous. They’re curious and at times charming, but seem to belong to an entirely different, second book.

The Hereditary Estate. By Daniel Coburn. Kehrer Verlag, 2015.

An essay by Kristen Pai Buick, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of New Mexico, closes the book. Buick writes about the tug of familiarity she felt seeing Coburn’s complicated family album and points out how important Coburn’s family’s participation was, going so far as to call them co-authors of the images.

The Hereditary Estate is beautifully crafted, with excellent black and white reproductions. Coburn has deftly accomplished his goal, as the complicated images of family life, and how people allow themselves to be represented, will foster sustained, thoughtful conversation.—DAVID ONDRIK

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DAVID ONDRIK is an artist, high school art teacher, and writer who grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico and now lives in Portland, Oregon. http://www.artisdead.net.

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