While Awkward Family Photos are a popular meme, photographer Leon Borensztein’s new book, American Portraits 1979-1989, is a thoughtful culmination of 13 years of taking portraits throughout America. The series is compelling and nuanced while maintaining a strong dose of humor.
Originally from Poland, Borensztein moved from Israel to the United States in 1977 to attend graduate school at the San Francisco Art Institute. In need of income, Borensztein talked his way into a job as a portrait photographer by claiming extensive experience photographing people. In fact, he had none. As an employee of the studio, his objective, he says via email, “was to shoot as many different combinations as possible: first the entire family, then the parents (if there were both of them), the children, the family pet, etc.; so when the salesman came the following week, sometimes the unsuspecting family would find it hard to resist the larger and pricier package.”
“When I came to the U.S., I had a certain vision of America and the American Dream. But after seeing so many homes from inside, I realized that the reality was different,” said Borensztein. “It was not too long before I realized that I could take advantage of this treasure trove of material by combining my artistic goals with my commercial commitments, and I began to use two cameras: one with color film for the studio and one with black-and-white film for myself. When I was finished with the studio session, I brought out my other camera and quickly made some exposures for myself.”
Because he didn’t want the subjects to present themselves differently, he would explain after taking his pictures what the second camera was for. (He mostly used his Hasselblad for his own project, cropping the photos from square to portrait size later.) He gave them one directive, which was not to smile (with the exception of in Father With Son). Inevitably, this relaxed them to the point that the mask slipped away and Borensztein was able to portray them in a more realistic manner.
Being in the relatively unique position of gaining entry into hundreds of homes in the same or comparable working-class neighborhoods, certain similarities stood out to Borensztein between one house and another: All the homes in one neighborhood had the same vacuum cleaner, there was a lot of plastic everywhere, and he saw hundreds of houses without books other than identical fancy editions of the Holy Bible and the same set of dusty, never-opened encyclopedias.
Although the job was a logistical nightmare (Borensztein routinely had to visit 15-30 families a day in various parts of town), “it was the passport into many different homes that allowed me to observe and document diverse families and individuals, their desires and dreams,” said Borensztein.
Once the company started to grow, it stopped sending photographers to clients homes and instead rented hotel conference rooms, convention halls, or restaurants to double as makeshift studios. The line of clients waiting their turn is evident in some of the images that show someone just beyond the edge of the photo backdrop.
Bornsztein chose not to remain in contact with his subjects, because “… my photographs were a momentary glimpse into their lives. While I often felt a strong response to their situation, or the way they looked, I did not feel it was right to intrude into their lives any further.”