Years after leaving, London-based photographer Glen Erler returned to his Californian hometown. The resulting book of his work there, Family Tree, offers us a deeply shadowed and murky insight into the emotional ties that bind, but also alienate, family.
Writer Enda Walsh introduces Erler in the foreword as a man who is part-outsider, part-insider. On the one hand he is a young man, leaving his beloved hometown in 1995, and on the other he is grown man, a photographer with a family of his own, who has become detached from his surroundings and is searching for answers.
Though by all means a personal account, Family Tree allows the viewer only a dimly-lit view into Erler's world. Though most of the images feature family members, he keeps them at arm's length, their presence distant and impersonal. Photographed shrouded in shadow, through blurry windows and coloured curtains, their faces are almost always obscured.
In one image, Erler shoots through a dusty window in which the sun is reflected. We see the outlines of an individual in the garden. We do not know who this is, nor can we see what he is doing, but the image evokes a certain curiosity to seek answers. As we turn the pages, we come to another image in which a girl stands on a couch. Her face is hidden by a shadow as she gazes at the ceiling. Once again, Erler leaves us in the dark as to who she is and what she means to him.
The images are static, often still-lifes, even when people are in the frame. They're posed and stagnant, sadly so, filling the series of 106 colour images with a great sense of personal loss and melancholy. The book is concluded with a series of images introduced with the label “The Last Ten Days". In images of rooms being emptied, a man photographed weeping from afar, a patch of yellow grass that is dug up in the shape of a grave, then filled, we learn of the sudden death of Erler's father, and the picture of Erler's perspective on family becomes more problematic and sorrowful. The images' placement also plays with our viewer's experience: they are never printed in the same place or size as on the previous page. There's not a single place to feel at home, the viewer must constantly readjust.
Erler concludes the book with a section called “Thoughts", where he details some memories that match to the images included, often incredibly personal and emotional, and then a listing of the images titles. The separation of text description from image is that we sift back and forth through the pages for a better understanding, matching image to anecdotes. But the effect of this epilogue requests engagement: to learn more, we must be active participants.
In a sense, Family Tree is an invitation by Erler to join him in his encounters with his family history. Yet, as we are never able to fully immerse ourselves in the image, to fully understand the subject, we are filled with a vacancy, pushing us over and again to turn the page.