Daniel W. Coburn lives and works in Lawrence, Kansas. His work and research investigates the family photo album employed as one component of a visual infrastructure that supports the flawed ideology of the American Dream. Selections from his body of work have been featured in exhibitions at the Los Angeles Center for Digital Art and the Chelsea Museum of Art in New York. Coburn’s prints are held in collections at the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), the University of New Mexico Art Museum, the Mulvane Art Museum, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, and the Mariana Kistler-Beach Museum of Art. He has been invited as a guest lecturer at national and international photography events including the International Festival of Photography in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the Ballarat International Foto Biennale in Victoria, Australia, and the Helsinki Photo-Media Conference. His first artist’s monograph, The Hereditary Estate, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2015. Daniel’s work has been published widely, most recently appearing in the International New York Times. Coburn received his MFA with distinction from the University of New Mexico in 2013. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Photo Media at the University of Kansas.
The Hereditary Estate
In my project, The Hereditary Estate, I make images that explore the dark undercurrents of my own family history. My goal is to create lyrical, poetic and mysterious images, presenting a set of characters that become icons of a universal human experience. I use portraiture, landscape, and still-life images as metaphor to describe a people that exist at the intersection of domestic duress and spirituality.
These images are a tangible manifestation of fantasy, memories and experiences I have acquired during my journey to adulthood. The Hereditary Estate functions as a potent supplement to the idealized representations of domestic life that exist in most family albums.
AB: What initially inspired you to turn the camera upon your parents and family?
DC: It happened accidentally. I was a first year graduate student at the University of New Mexico when I returned home for the fourth of July. I made a portrait of my mother while I was visiting my parents. It was one of those moments as an artist when you surprise yourself and instantly understand that you have done something important. The image that came off of the camera that day was one that both seduced and terrified me. I set out to understand why. It became the motivation, inspiration, and the cornerstone of my first project Next of Kin.
AB: Your monograph, The Hereditary Estate, interweaves pictures you made of your family with found photographs. Can you speak more about this choice of narrative?
DC: The Hereditary Estate is an antithetical family album. Tragic events involving domestic violence, alcoholism, and suicide haunt my family history. I became conscious of this history as an adult teenager when my father confessed he had a brother that had committed suicide as a young adult. Around the same time my mother began to recount acts of extreme domestic violence carried out by my maternal grandfather. This project is designed as a potent supplement to the family archive assembled by my parents. It is my attempt to set the story straight.
The Hereditary Estate features images that I have made using a large format camera, interweaved and sequenced with found snapshots that I have collected through the years. Many of the events in my history could not be represented by images that I make, and do not exist in my own family collection. Instead, I mine antique stores, estate sales and online auctions to find images that represent specific people and events in my family history. I present them all in black and white to confuse the timeline. Much of my work investigates the generational cycle of domestic trauma and abuse, the passing of values and behaviors from one generation to the next. It becomes difficult to discern which photos are new, which photos are old, and the characters perform their roles on a stage where time is irrelevant.
AB: In the process of making these photographs, was there an image, or set of images, that truly solidified this project for you?
DC: Every photograph represents a critical part of the narrative. The book is carefully sequenced to consider the psychological dialog between photographs and create a story that is simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. If one of the images is removed or misplaced, the narrative, as I envision it, collapses. For me, art making is about pushing yourself into uncharted psychological territory. The work that is produced in that endeavor is a byproduct of that process. In several images, I use the camera to stop time, to elevate a fraction of a moment, to reveal an instant that cannot be perceived by the human eye. The camera’s inherent ability to objectively stop time distinguishes and separates photography from all other artistic mediums. Those are some of my favorite photographs from this project.
AB: Not only only do I see these photographs as visual investigations of your family, but an internal reflection of self. How do your mother, father, and relatives differently embody elements of your own identity?
DC: I am a product of the environment in which I was raised. This project takes a critical look at my family, but I cannot separate myself, and I make no attempt. People often ask why I seldom make photographs of myself for these projects. Because of my role as photographer, I am already excessively present in this work. The Hereditary Estate is a self-portrait, it’s about gaining a better understanding of who I am, and an attempt at self improvement. It has also become cathartic for our family. We have been forced to confront issues that may have never been discussed. I hope this project forces conversation. I hope my artistic effort encourages people to confront important issues before a legacy of domestic trauma is inherited by subsequent generations.
AB: How do you feel this series has impacted or changed your relationship with your family, and the way you perceive other family dynamics?
DC: My family and I are much closer now and I consider them co-authors of this project. We have all been forced to confront personal demons. We have learned to forgive and reckon with the ghosts that haunt our past.
AB: A previous feature on Aint-Bad showcased photographs you made of your family in color. How do you compare the color with the black and white images on an emotional level?
DC: I make romantic photographs. I am a fool for beauty and craft. I think most people are. Visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and if you pay attention, you quickly begin to understand that it is the beautiful objects that are coveted, collected, cherished and protected during times of war, catastrophe and political unrest. I make very personal work, so my challenge is making people understand and care about my own very specific family narrative. In Next of Kin I used jewel-like color to seduce my audience into the darker family narrative. The color palette references stained glass, an important conceptual component to this work that compares the religious sanctuary to the domestic sanctuary. Many of the black and white images in The Hereditary Estate perform a similar function. I use long, and double exposures to reference 19th century spirit photography
AB: I also understand you’re also in the works on a new project. How do you think this series will expand from The Hereditary Estate?
DC: My new project uses my father’s life story as the connective tissue for a larger investigation of the construct of masculinity. My work is will always reference my family history but is becoming more broad in scope. That’s all I can say at this point. Stay tuned!
To view more of Daniel’s photographs, please visit his website.
His monograph, The Hereditary Estate, is now available for purchase in our shop!