6 minute read

Permanence: A Family Portrait

Informed by the interplay between photographs and memory, recollections of our closest ties are imbued with the strongest sentiments. For her latest venture, Caroline Tran aims to encapsulate this enduring energy

When sunlight breaks through the branches of California’s Joshua Tree Park, rays form in lusciously realized streams. Iridescent and warm, the tones are typically Californian, embodying the state’s casual optimism. Caroline Tran inhales the grandeur of her surroundings. Amidst all this sand, there’s an idyllic tranquillity bordering her focus. It’s a fitting framework for her photos – images that exemplify the importance of memory and family bonds, joyful and upbeat. As certain pictures become tethered to specific points in time, the significance of a domestic portrait is more distinct: these aren’t mere photos, they’re essential tools of remembrance.

“Whose legacy are we documenting? I used to think it was the children, but during this project, I realized that it’s also a reflection of how the parents want to be considered,” she explains. “The emotions are too complex for these young people to understand now, but they’re feelings that will make sense in years to come.” Hazy and ill-defined, childhood recollection is prone to vagueness. The subsistence of memory often depends upon the timelessness of photographs, and Caroline recognizes this implicitly. Looking beyond the gloss of a well-presented image, she ponders how pictures can attain a sense of eternality. In this sense, portraits are a profound way for parents to immortalize themselves – instruments that facilitate nostalgia and reminiscence when their children reach adulthood. “I photographed two families for this project. One had a one-year-old pandemic baby, and it was their first family photo shoot. I’d worked with the other family in the past when the mother had two children. A few years later and she’s got four! To photograph such significant milestones was honestly an honor.”

As flights were grounded and international travel prohibited, pandemic restrictions made regionally accessible spaces a focal point. Overlooked in favor of far-off, exotic escapades, lockdowns exposed us to the majesty of America’s domestic delights. “Throughout this whole debacle, people have started exploring the beauty of local spaces, and that’s really great,” she remarks. “I go to Joshua Tree a lot – I love the environment. The trees are so whimsical, they look like they’re straight out of a Dr. Seuss book!” Beyond question, Caroline’s appraisals speak to an underlying truth: an engaging setting is crucial when creating portraiture. Without the proper backdrop, expressions can appear sterilized, surroundings austere. In the radiant hues of Joshua Tree, Caroline’s photos gleam with the vibrancy of her subjects. “The golden fields are wonderful, and there’s always such beautiful, classic light formations. The entire place just screams California. That’s why I photographed one family at sunrise, the other at sunset. We were able to make use of golden hour for both. To put it bluntly, I’m obsessed. I even have favorite trees that I like to document!”

A student of celluloid and darkrooms, Caroline learnt her trade in medium-format conditions, using FUJICOLOR 400H film to cultivate her style. Habituated to the particularities of this process, switching to digital was a testing enterprise. “I just couldn’t get it to resemble my film work,” she laments. “I would use a 645 analog film camera. I also had a standard, digital, full-frame SLR. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t replicate that look. It wasn’t the same aspect ratio, and the previews were never the same as what I ended up with. That really dampened my inspiration – to be honest, it all but killed my creativity. For a long time, I was lost. But then I discovered Fujifilm, and everything changed. The previews were exactly the same as the images I captured, and that brought back the excitement of shooting film again.” Reinvigorated, Caroline experienced a second wind. It was a profound change, reinforcing her commitment to a humane, minimalist attitude. “I’m not a gearhead. I’m more about the emotional connection, so I need an easy-to-use camera,” she outlines. “I don’t like to spend too much time behind a computer, endlessly editing. I want something that works fast. I prefer to expend energy on my subjects.”

For this project, Caroline used the GFX100S. Of all the resources at her disposal, precise previewing capabilities were perhaps the most valuable component. “I’d screen each image with the film simulation – PRO Neg. Hi – which is very similar to what my 645 images looked like. The large LCD screen is just what I envisaged in my head.” In addition to the main body, Caroline required a lens that could replicate the bokeh and compression of her filmic camera. She found an appropriate counterpart with the FUJINON GF80mmF1.7 R WR lens. “It was like the old film days. Around 90% of my work is one body, one lens, and this one is so versatile – it’s perfect for the portraits I’m trying to create.”

Embracing the subtle conflicts of family life, Caroline evokes the playfulness of the sibling dynamic, and the unconditionality of parent-child love. In a shrewdly observed balance, she kept the mood light and amusing when photographing children, while synchronously forming rapport with the adults. “Any time I could get the kids to engage with the landscape, I seized the moment. It kept them interested. I encouraged older siblings to climb the rocks, while younger ones explored the grounds. I create lots of games, and children obviously relish a challenge. I allocated objectives, and as they were preoccupied, that provided me with perfect moments to create. Those ‘assignments’ worked really well – make your brother laugh, make your sister laugh, etc. I also got the kids to engage with the LCD screen. They felt part of the process, and relished the sense of participation that accompanies a purposeful, collaborative effort.

“As for the adults, I identified my allies, and tried to figure out who might be resistant. I’d put more effort into communicating with the coy personalities, determining a connection before we began. An interest, a hobby, something. Then I’d lean into it when we began. As a general rule of thumb, I find that helps people loosen up. As for the more dominant character, I’d be light-hearted and humorous. That balance is what helped produce a convincing outcome… a combination of silliness and soberness – just like a family.”

Employing perception and awareness, Caroline Tran’s photographs are powerful tributes to the perpetuity of family. In her frame, it’s everlasting.


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