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Tealia Ellis Ritter, The Model Family [2021]
Tealia Ellis Ritter, The Model Family [2021]© Tealia Ellis Ritter 2021 courtesy Loose Joints

Tealia Ellis Ritter’s portraits track three decades of family life

The American photographer’s new book, The Model Family, presents a narrative of daily life unfolding over more than 30 years

American photographer Tealia Ellis Ritter is fascinated with memory and the way our personal histories are constantly being reconstituted. We cast aside certain experiences and retain others in the continual process of creating the stories we tell ourselves about who we are. Within a family, we become embroiled in mythologising one another, as anecdotes are repeated and passed down like folklore. Memory isn’t linear, it can be amorphous and hard to grab hold of, erratic, and selective. As the song says, “Loneliness remembers what happiness forgets.”

She was six years old when her father gave her an unwieldy, fully-manual camera and first showed her how to “make a picture”. Amazed by her new magical ability, she began what would become a lifelong habit and a way of explicating the world around her by capturing it on film. As Lisa Taddeo, author of Three Women, says of Ritter’s work: “[Her father] entrusted her with a mechanical camera that was very breakable, and she posed her younger sister and made meaning out of childhood.”   

The archive of images she created represents an accumulation of three decades’ worth of distilled moments. Her latest book The Model Family [published by Loose Joints] presents a selection of these portraits tracing the intricate web of invisible threads that form the everyday experience of family life, as generation gives way to generation and time moves inexorably forward.

Viewed in isolation, each one of Ritter’s black and white images is an incredibly evocative vignette, pregnant with the turmoil of everyday life. Imagine stills from an Ingmar Bergman film, stripped of the theatricality but retaining all the beauty and drama. Experienced as a body of work, the images interact with one another in a constellation of connections as narratives suggest themselves and people grow and age from page to page. 

The book’s afterword is written by Taddeo, a friend of Ritter. Her text operates in parallel with the images, not necessarily commenting directly on them but offering us a chance to commune with the feeling that spending time with photographs of lost loved ones can have on us; how photographs can serve as vital conduits of memory and connection; how they can mediate and aggravate grief. “Loss is the only true democracy we have. If we really looked at each other, we might see clear through the fact of our shared pain.”

Taddeo’s contribution – which you may find hard to read through the veil of tears you will be crying by the final passage – is a mediation on loss not as something passive, but as an imperative, crucial part of the architecture of love. “What T teaches me is that the act of missing can be beautiful, stronger, and more beautiful and better able to withstand the elements, even than teak… And even more importantly, that the missing doesn’t have to be merely tolerated. The missing doesn’t have to be confined to certain perspectives. Yes I have to start missing my daughter now, yes I started life missing her… and, god, is there anything worse than loving something that must leave.”

Below, we talk to Tealia Ellis Ritter about the unreliability of memory, the passing of time, and the perilous journey through girlhood to adulthood.

Please could you introduce the book and how it developed as a project?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: I began photographing my family when I was very young, after my father gave me an old fully-manual heavy, metal, Canon F-1 camera when I was around six years old. He told me all I had to do was line up the dash with the middle of the circle and I could make a picture. The idea of that was captivating and so I started photographing what was around me… mostly my family. The images developed from there as a means of exploration and a way of possessing a part of someone even after time moved on. That act of photographing my family members has since really become a constant in my life. 

As a project or body of work, and specifically as a book, the work developed many years later when I realised that my son was around the same age my sister was when I first started photographing her diligently – aged six. This realisation prompted me to start printing the proof sheets from my archive of family images just to see what had been created. That’s when I started to put the images together and the book developed naturally from there as a collaboration with Lewis and Sarah from the publishers, Loose Joints.

What are the overarching themes you think the book deals with?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: The book revolves around themes of becoming, time, and basic human experience and emotion… death, love, togetherness, isolation, laughter, children, play. The banal of the everyday is punctuated by these heightened moments of trauma and or beauty. 

What do you think drew you to first pick up a camera and start documenting your family life as a teenager?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: My father was an avid photographer, constantly photographing us and our experiences, so watching him definitely motivated me to initially pick up a camera. I don’t see myself as documenting ‘family life’ though, I am engaging with and photographing the individuals in my family over time as they move through different physical and emotional states, more akin to charting each individual’s path and then relating the individuals to the group which I see as existing on a continuum from one generation to another.

Could you describe the affinity you felt with Lisa Taddeao’s work and why you decided she had the right voice to provide an introduction to the book?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: What I admire so passionately about Lisa Taddeo’s work is the honesty of her writing. She possesses a unique willingness and bravery to discuss elements of the human condition that we often gloss over societally and embraces vulnerability in a way that feels all-encompassing. Lisa is also particularly astute at dealing with the complexity of internal emotional existence. All of this paired with the way she handles time in a non-linear manner – and the fact that she is one of the most wonderful people – I know made her the most ideal person to work with. I had no doubt her text would be a compelling close to the book and operate as a written parallel for the images.

Please could you talk us through what you feel to be one of the most definitive and poignant images in the book and why you have such a strong response to that particular picture?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: That’s a difficult question to answer… one of the images that is personally most poignant and definitive to me is the image of my husband kissing my son. I think there are a lot of layers in that image. On an emotional level, the gesture is so tender and indicative of the closeness that exists within our family. I also think it is important to explore fatherly affection in a more holistic and honest manner. On a conceptual level considering how the image operates in the book, it is like this transfer of energy from one generation to the next and a kind of universal symbol of connection.

Why does memory alone seem so unreliable as a document of truth?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: I was initially studying human psychology and was a few classes away from my degree when I changed course and decided to pursue art. While studying psychology, I was particularly interested in the science of memory. It fascinates me to this day. Memory is not linear for most people. We are constantly editing and rewriting our memories as we construct the story of our lives, a narrative of who we are that is evolving as we evolve. We tell ourselves this story and add to it or eliminate aspects of it, creating and breaking links between events as we go. 

In this way, I feel that memory is much like my archive of family-related images. When you arrange the images a particular way, they tell a particular story but there are of course images being left out that would alter the narrative and the arrangement of the parts also impacts how the pieces are perceived. The Model Family, as a book, is a snapshot or one version of the image archive and one way of telling a complicated story or relating a complicated series of memories. 

“I think as a culture we need to develop a more complex and frankly honest understanding of the inner lives and capabilities of girls and how the journey from girlhood to adulthood can either bolster or crush a person” – Tealia Ellis Ritter

When you went through the process of editing the images, were you surprised by any emerging themes that you were unconscious of at the time of taking the pictures?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: The thing that surprised me the most in going through all of the images of my family was how consistent my interests and approach to making pictures had been over the years. I had never really sat down and thought, this is what I’m making pictures about with my family. I just made pictures. 

For instance, there is this photo in the book of my sister, in a dress, holding her pet snake at about 15 years old. I have clear memories of that day, building the pseudo-studio enclosure that she is sitting in out of old blankets at my mum’s house. But what I had forgotten is that many years prior to this, I had photographed her in an almost identical pose holding a garter snake we caught in the yard when she was like four or five years old. It kind of blew me away, the cyclical nature of the imagery.

What kinds of emotions and ideas would you most like the book to provoke in those who encounter it?

Tealia Ellis Ritter: My hope is that the book as a whole stimulates thoughts about the basic nature of being human and by that I mean a recognition of the fleshy state that we all exist in, how we become who we become over time, the path taken from birth to death and the ties that exist to generations. 

On a more intellectual level, I would ask people to consider the concept of authorship. When viewing the book, you are seeing my family members evolve and change but I hope there is also an awareness that as the photographer, I am evolving and changing as well through the 30 ish years covered in the book. I created the oldest image in the book when I was nine years old, the most recent images in the book were taken at my present age, 43. I think as a culture we need to develop a more complex and frankly honest understanding of the inner lives and capabilities of girls and how the journey from girlhood to adulthood can either bolster or crush a person. I think it is so important to bring to light more works from this perspective.

Tealia Ellis Ritter’s The Model Family is published by Loose Joints and available now