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Book of the Week: Selected by Odette England

Book Review Son Photographs by Christopher Anderson Reviewed by Odette England "I wanted a boy. My husband wanted a girl. We have a girl. I can’t believe I ever wanted a boy..."

Son by Christopher Anderson.
Photographs by Christopher Anderson

STANLEY/BARKER, London, UK, 2021. 160 pp., 80 color illustrations, 8¾x9¾".

I wanted a boy. My husband wanted a girl. We have a girl. I can’t believe I ever wanted a boy.

My reasons for wanting a boy are not as interesting as why we tend to say ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ rather than I want a son or I want a daughter. It could be because there’s a stronger personal attachment to the word ‘son’ than ‘boy’. ‘Son’ feels more human, more real.

I have many new thoughts about photographing children and photobooks generally thanks to Christopher Anderson’s Son. Starting with the cloth cover, the position of the word ‘son’ at the top in petrol blue where the sun would be at high noon. I learn that Anderson, the only word on the book’s spine, which also ends in ‘son’ means ‘Son of Andrew’, derived from the Greek name Andreas meaning man or manly. I also notice that Anderson uses ‘son’ rather than his son’s name, Atlas. What a title to grow into! He’s got the whole world in his name.

Those of you who are parents might recall the first moment you saw and held your child. I hadn’t considered that when we meet them, they are a stranger to us and us to them. Nor had I considered that when we gift a child a name, what they are called is very different to their certified relationship to us. Which makes ‘son’ as a fact, idea, inference and photobook title a shrewd choice. How well do we know, can we ever claim to know, our children? The camera, in this case held by Anderson, adds both comfort and complication to the question. I say this as someone who has photographed her daughter since birth, watching her change and grow through a glass rectangle.

, published by Stanley/Barker, comprises 80 color-rich images made between 2013 and 2021. This edition expands the original version published in 2013, a “second chapter” of the story. Many aspects stand out to me within the first twenty-five images. That any discussion about a son also involves a mother and grandfather, among other family members. That the sun, the only star and central body of our solar system, is a prevalent sub-character (and, an analogy for son). That as we age we become hyperaware of our death and that of our children. That we take many more photographs of our first child than their siblings, and far fewer of aging family, especially if they have a serious illness. And that we’re all a son or daughter to someone, somewhere, at some point.

The images offer a variety of distances between photographer and subject. They reveal time through seasons, light, vacations, reflections and clothing. There are interior and exterior views. We see where Atlas lives, sits, plays, eats, sleeps, swims and showers. We see his toys, pets, friends and hobbies. We see him accept, reject and ignore the camera. We see him being in the world, looking at the world, sometimes eyeing his father. We see him but we don’t know him like his father does. I wonder to what extent Atlas recognizes himself in these photographs of love and admiration. I also wonder which image is the last one we ‘see’ of Anderson’s father.

This book is about more than childhood, parenthood or life or death alone. It is about responsibility, sincerity, legacy and a dash or two of regret. I say this because about halfway through the book Anderson shares with us a letter he writes to Atlas after “a fuss about your homework”. I’m going to resist the temptation to copy the letter here in full though I do have questions about it. Did Anderson handwrite it to Atlas? How was it given to him (if indeed it was)? Is it shared in the book with us as-is, without editing or rewriting? The penmanship is magical and Anderson offers a remarkably concise explanation for the how and why of his photographs. And then ties it up with the neat bow of “I love you to the moon and back”.

Anderson makes photographing family look easy, unhurried and na├»ve, which is a positive quality. It’s very hard to do, even harder to do well. There is no objectivity here, no neutral gaze, and thank goodness. There are also few images (or few obvious images) of all those messy truths like arguments, tantrums, piles of dishes, diapers or dirty clothes. There are fewer still that depict major milestones at which we’d take out our cameras or phones, like birthday parties. It’s Anderson’s unforced eye capturing the roles of father, son, photographer, husband and friend that make this book so potent. Son is a star around which many a photobook could do with orbiting.

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Odette England 
is a photographer and writer based in Providence, Rhode Island and New York. Her work has been shown in more than 100 museums, galleries, and exhibition spaces worldwide. She has two photobooks out this year: Dairy Character, winner of the 2021 Light Work Book Award; and Past Paper Present Marks: Responding to Rauschenberg, her collaboration with Jennifer Garza-Cuen, which received a $5,000 Rauschenberg Publication Grant.