One-Minute Book Reviews

November 4, 2008

Jessica Todd Harper – A Photographer of Manners Observes Her Patrician Family’s Christmas, Easter, Wedding and Other Customs

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Interior Exposure. By Jessica Todd Harper. Foreword by Larry Fink. Damiani, 112 pp., $45.

By Janice Harayda

Jessica Todd Harper’s photographs of her family are what Ralph Lauren ads might be like if they were real. This is a compliment. Unlike Polo ads, Harper’s pictures of her patrician family are warm, engaging and at times witty. They tell — or at least suggest — rich and multilayered stories.

Interior Exposure is the photographic equivalent of a good novel of manners, an art form that shows a well-defined social group at a particular time and place. Its pictures would provide wonderful visual data for anthropologists studying Eastern upper-class kinship rituals in the early 21st century. Harper’s relatives sport clownish paper hats, just extracted from poppers, at a Christmas Eve dinner. Her sister Becky wears an ill-fitting wedding dress in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ house, where the furnishings might have stayed the same for a century. In an amusing self-portrait with her future in-laws, Harper stands at attention as though trying to pass a military inspection.

Part of the charm of Interior Exposure is that it shows how a gifted photographer can bring fresh life to many elements of the high classical tradition in painting. Harper draws on techniques of the Dutch Golden Age: the artful use of natural light, subjects framed by doors and windows, paintings-within-paintings (represented by ancestral portraits within photographs) and domestic objects are that are at once ordinary and freighted with symbolic meaning. But like all good artists, she brings her own sensibility to tradition. Some of her pictures are almost an updated index to the symbols used in vanitas, those treatises-in-oil that comment on the transience of time and earthly life: clocks, flickering candles, half-empty wine goblets. At times you sense that Harper would have loved to include a skull or two, and you wonder what her work will look like when her children are old enough to go trick-or-treating.

But the pictures in Interior Exposure don’t moralize as vanitas do. They raise questions: Is Becky the diva she appears to be in Harper’s photos, or does she upstage other people by force of her beauty, not her personality? What is Harper saying by giving her such a prominent role? You could return to Interior Exposure again and again and keep seeing new things in it, just as you can with a great novel.

Best picture: No. 1: “Becky in the Dining Room, 2005.” Harper’s sister wears an ill-fitting wedding gown — possibly their mother’s — and stands next to an ancestral portrait in the Victorian dining room of their parents’ home in Allentown, Pennsylvania. If you saw this photo out of context, you might mistake it for a movie still from an elegant new film version of a Henry James novel. The picture would show the moment just before the doomed American heiress weds the callow European who, though she doesn’t know it yet, is marrying her only for her money. Everything in the Harpers’ dining room might have existed a century ago except for — a wonderful touch — a plastic bag on the table. Looking at the photo, you wonder how the idea that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny ever got so discredited, because this picture seems to illustrate perfectly a Brahmin version of it. No. 2: “Self Portrait With Christopher and my Future In-Laws, 2001.”

Worst picture: “Self Portrait with Christopher (Rochester), 2000.” In this photo Christopher lies on a four-poster bed and gazes at his naked wife, whom we see from behind. Harper positioned the camera in a spot that allows a wood poster to rise majestically from her husband’s crotch. Christopher is going to take some ribbing about this one.

Consider reading also: Patrick De Rynck’s How to Read a Painting (Abrams, 2004), a good introduction to the use of symbols in Old Masters, including those of the Dutch Golden Age.

If you like this book, you might also like … Bonnettstown: A House in Ireland (Abrams, 1989).

Published: March 2008 and

Furthermore: This book includes an interview with the author by Sarah Anne McNear in English and an Italian translation. Harper teaches at Swarthmore College and has won many awards for her work.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


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