Marvin Heiferman | Reviews

Let the Children Kodak: McNair Evans’ Confessions for a Son

Midway Cotton Gin, McNair Evans

Early in the twentieth century, Kodak produced advertisements for its popular Brownie cameras that ran in magazines, including American Boy, and whose headlines proclaimed "Let the Children Kodak." The ads went on to explain, as Nancy West notes in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, that in addition to being wholesome fun, photography is an activity that helps children overcome “whatever nervousness, care, and ill-feelings enter their little world.”

Fast forward to the closing decades of the twentieth century, when a photographic genre evolved in which adult picture-makers produced intense bodies of work in book form to grapple with their complex relationships to their parents and, in particular, to make peace with their fathers. Larry Sultan’s alternatingly sweet and acerbic Pictures From Home (1992) was among the first. Mitch Epstein’s haunting Family Business (2003) came next and examined the unravelling of the family furniture business. More recently in Sara Macel’s May the Road Rise to Meet You (2013), it is a daughter who speculates about her father’s life—in both documentary and staged images—as a traveling salesman away from home.

This fall, McNair Evans’ Confessions for a Son (Owl & Tiger Books, 2014), extends the category with a collection of images—alternatingly evocative and questioning—that try to come to terms with his father’s culpability in allowing a long-successful agricultural enterprise in North Carolina to slide into insolvency. In 2010, nine years after his father’s death, Evans returned home, as he described it in an artist’s statement, “to photograph the lasting psychological landscape of Dad’s legacy. Retracing my father’s life, I used photography to comprehend its events. … Initially confused and angry, I grew to know him as a teenager, college student, co-worker, life-long friend, and father who lovingly withheld business realities.”

The book opens with the tiny, barely focused image of a solitary figure adrift in the water which sets the tone for this elliptical photo-narrative that pits forensic images against emotional ones, juxtaposes landscapes with still lifes, and new portraits with decades-old snapshots. The first of the sparse texts and captions that punctuate the book alludes to hunting, which is what Evans did as he set revisited sights, uncovered evidence, and connected with people in hope of gaining insights into his father’s circumstances, history, mindset, and legacy.

Confessions for a Son has an intimate feel to it and includes two examples of the kinds of blow- and tip-ins that seem, increasingly, to be inserted between the pages of small-run photo books like this one, as if to underscore, in a digital age, their materiality and authenticity. One is a facsimile of the 1973 Christmas letter that Evans’ father sent to his mother, promising her a spring trip to New York where they would select a fur piece to celebrate their life together and the commemorate the birth of their firstborn. “It is my hope,” he wrote, “that each time you wear it you will be reminded that your husband loves you with all his heart.” What is clear in this book is how, in perhaps a more analytic and complicated way, photographic images function similarly for Evans, reminding him (and us) of a man who—regardless of his failures, silences, and weakness—may have loved his son as much and as well.

Gun collection, McNair Evans

McNair Evans will be signing books at the New York Art Book Fair (booth W-04) on Saturday September 27 from 2–4.
Homepage image: Floodlight. All images © McNair Evans 

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