“I just kept showing up and became part of their lives”: Susan Kandel spent 10 years documenting peoples' homes
The Boston-based photographer talks us through her new book At Home, published by Stanley Barker.
- Ayla Angelos
- 13 April 2021
“I was attracted to the infinite possibilities of what I could make happen in a small rectangle,” Susan Kandel says of her gateway into photography. Growing up in Silver Spring, a suburb in Washington, she packed her bags to Boston to attend Brandeis University before graduating without any real plan or career in mind. That was until her parents gifted a Minolta camera as a graduation present and, “on a lark”, attended a photography workshop at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts.
Then, “still larking”, she found herself at the Creative Photography Lab at MIT where she traded eight hours of work a week for classes and darkroom access. It was here that photography started to make sense as a viable career option, and she went on to receive an MFA at Massachusetts College of Art. This was shortly followed by a few wedding photography events, a stint in street photography which finally landed herself amongst the realms of visual storytelling. Consequently, she’s had photographs exhibited across the board in Blue Sky Gallery, Oregon, Institution of Contemporary Art and the Photo Resource Center in Boston. Plus she was involved in the Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. And now, she’s launched her latest accomplishment: a book titled At Home, published by Stanley Barker.
“I don’t like things that start with a blank sheet of paper,” she continues to tell It’s Nice That. “With photography, you start with what’s out there in the world and then select a piece of time and space to capture in your rectangle.” She once heard photography likened to a long exercise of editing and Susan explains she couldn’t agree with this concept more. For one, it starts with a photographer’s view of the world, before they make the decision of what should be placed into the frame, or “rectangle”, as Susan puts it. “You are leaving out most of the world, just selecting this little bit. Once you have your contact sheets, and are deciding what to print, you edit out and edit out. Then, after you print, you do more editing out and editing out. The pile of pictures that you find worthy is getting smaller and smaller. Many decisions are made going down the line. Maybe you end up with one good picture, or on a good day, three or four. Sometimes you have none.”
One of these good days happened in October 1979 when Susan decided to take pictures of the families who’d come to see Pope John Paul II at the Boston Common, a central public park in the city. It’s usual for Popes to pay visits to metropolises that have large Catholic populations, and Boston is one of those locations. Susan isn’t a Catholic herself, but knew there would be an interesting opportunity for a picture. “I wasn’t there to see the Pope, but rather the crowd,” she says. But as it goes, or perhaps as a result of the lengthy editing process mentioned prior, Susan didn’t take a single good picture that day. Instead, she ended up meeting two mothers and their five children.
The mothers invited Susan to come and take their picture at their homes, and of course she was more than happy to accept. Their houses were located at Revere Beach and they were all but a stone’s throw away from each other; Susan would spend the summers of the late 70s documenting their daily lives and events, returning on multiple occasions over the next 10 years or so. “At first,” she adds, “I photographed at some distance, photographing the scene rather than individual families.” But as the families grew to trust and know the person behind the lens, what first started out as a project documenting two families in their homes evolved into a much larger series of events.
The wider location, too, was known as a family orientated and community-centred beach, so much so that the teenagers even had their own grounds, or “turf”. A few years down the line, Susan started to notice something. “I came to realise that some families would be in the same spots day after day, year after year. The families knew each other and knew where to find each other. I focused in on some families who let me get closer.”
Visiting bowling alleys, stores and malls looking for more families to photograph, Susan found herself attaining the permission to shoot inside countless more homes – it was somewhat of a domino effect that saw families referring friends. “Also, a co-worker knew what I was doing in photography and invited me to his house. I photographed his family a number of times over the years. Many of the kids I photographed had little idea of what I was about; I just kept showing up and became part of their lives."
In some instances, Susan would visit an immaculately tidy house, where the inhabitants would dress up and pose in front of the camera. But when these occurrences happened, Susan never returned. “I liked rooms that had some evidence of the lives of folks who lived there,” she adds, resultantly documenting the families as they are and in their natural environments. And that’s just it; Susan’s At Home is like a time capsule, with no real intention other than to tell the lives and stories of the families she’d met, in all but a few, well-considered rectangles.
Susan Kandel's At Home is published by Stanley Barker and available to purchase here.
GallerySusan Kandel: At Home, published by Stanley Barker (Copyright © Susan Kandel, 2021)
Susan Kandel: At Home, published by Stanley Barker (Copyright © Susan Kandel, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent nearly a decade as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.