Daniel W. Coburn: The Enigma of Family Connection

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘Lovers’ Embrace’ [detail] 2013 from the series ‘The Hereditary Estate’

You can choose your friends but you sure can’t choose your family, and they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge them or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.

Harper Lee


Those words, written by the American author Harper Lee in her celebrated novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, enshrine the paradox of family. We are connected to our family in ways that are profoundly deep whether or not they are comfortable. Families can, of course, be loving and peaceful, but many times they are not so perfect. Our genes link us to our relatives in ways that can offer the warmth of security or the stifling frustration of the inescapable. As we grow as individuals we may feel that we are pulling away from the body of the family, yet never can. We may grow apart, but our roots remain entwined.

The work of the American photographer Daniel W. Coburn engages with this apparent contradiction. His images emerge from trauma and tragedy, but they grow through an evolving conversation with his family. That domestic dialogue is initiated by the very process of making images (and this is a making of images and not a taking of images). In turn, the images themselves become a kind of chronicle of the unfolding conversation. The photographer does not return home as an outsider and coolly document his family as if they were strangers. He works with them – and they with him – to share in the process of depicting family life in all its shades of light and dark. It is an honest depiction devoid of the sugar of sentiment but also free of the bitter of retribution or the mush of self-pity. What his images reach for is that strange enigma at the heart of family life. The mysterious forces that repel and attract, hurt and heal, intimidate and comfort, but ultimately define the core of who we might become.

Alasdair Foster


When did you begin to make photographs?

A decade ago I endured a personal crisis. I found peace by hiking on trails along the Kansas River, not far from where I lived. I bought my first serious camera because I wanted to make images of the beautiful landscapes and animals that I encountered along the way. As I learned how to take creative control of the camera I began to understand its expressive capacity.

Looking at these images ten years later, I realised that they are different to those I make now. But my basic motivation is the same: to make sublime images – pictures that are simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘Mom Cooling Off in the Pool’ 2012 from the series ‘Next of Kin’

What drew you to focus your artistic process on the domestic narratives of your own family and friends?

In 2010, I left my home in Kansas to attend graduate school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I struggled to make any relevant work during my first year. Returning home, I found that I perceived my family dynamic from a more objective standpoint. On Independence Day I made a photograph of my mother in the pool. For me, this photograph had a significance that I couldn’t initially understand. I studied the image intensely and concluded that it was important because it described my mother as the powerful matriarch of the family. She has a presence that is simultaneously menacing and fragile.

Much of this work is a kind of counterpoint to the clichés of the perfect American family, itself a part of the so-called American Dream…

Part of my research focuses on American advertising campaigns of the twentieth century. Through this research I came to understand that the image of the ideal family was constructed in the name of capitalism. Companies created an unattainable goal (the ‘ideal family’) and then sold products, or ‘solutions’ that would purportedly help people get closer to that unattainable goal.

My grandparents attempted to adopt this image of the American Dream in the mid-twentieth century, during a time of great prosperity. I believe that my parents reaped the benefits, but also acquired the symptoms associated with a generation of people that tried, but could never quite measure up to the standards of this impossible utopia.

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘Panoptic Stain’ 2013 from the series ‘The Hereditary Estate’

In contrast to the sunny fiction of the American Dream, many of your images seem quite dark in mood.

Families are complicated. People are complicated. Relationships are complicated. And, yes, I believe that most families have their dark narratives that remain carefully hidden away. There is a history of suicide, domestic violence, and substance abuse in my family history that was seldom discussed and never referenced in our family album.

I am an artist, not a sociologist, but I believe that open discussion is healthy. We should celebrate our triumphs, but also confront the darker realities of domestic life. I hope that my work encourages others to confront and come to terms with their own histories in an effort stop a repeating cycle of trauma and abuse from one generation to the next.

It can be easier to work with strangers than with those with whom you are close. How did you develop a way of working in your domestic context to create images which often are poetically choreographed?  

My family has been very supportive of my work. I never sat down to plan all of this out, so we have all grown together as these projects have evolved. Most of these pictures were made using a large format camera, so my way of working is very slow and considered. I respond honestly when my family members ask questions about my intentions. This creates an environment where we must confront issues that we may have never discussed before. This takes effort by all of those involved. My family members are co-authors of these images.

In ‘Next of Kin’ you bring together a series of colour portraits, situations and observational asides to build a picture of the domestic as the theatre of a dark but true narrative. Can you talk about the making of that series?

I made thousands of images for the project and edited them down to a final series of sixty. I chose the photographs I felt were most accessible. I used intense colours reminiscent of stained glass. It was important to me that these images were, in their own way, beautiful. I didn’t want them to instruct, inform or preach; the narrative is implied rather than overt.

I use different visual devices to let characters advance or recede in the narrative. The men in my family play a smaller role, so their identities are often slightly obscured. But my mother and niece confront the camera courageously.

In ‘The Hereditary Estate’ you juxtapose found photographs with your own images. How did you develop this approach to making your work?

I have an extensive collection of anonymous amateur snapshot photographs, which I buy at sales, antique stores and online auctions. I collect the kind of ambiguous or unsettling images that might never find their way into a family album and then I manipulate them to change the story: to describe an event different to the one originally photographed, an event relevant to my own family history.

What do you think is achieved through the juxtaposition of found and made images?

Every decision that I make as a collector of old snapshots or as a photographer making my own images is designed to expand the range of information that might be included in this new approach to the family album. I weave found images with my own, but I do not make a distinction between the two. I combine romantic imagery with harsh snapshot images to create a strong psychological dialogue. I use black-and-white images because I want to confuse the timeline. I want people to wonder: Is this Daniel? Is this his Father? Is this his son?

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘Lovers’ Embrace’ 2013 from the series ‘The Hereditary Estate’

What emerges from this ‘confusion’?

I believe photography is a language and I want to create a very complex narrative. For example, ‘Lover’s Embrace’ is a portrait of my mother and father. It is simple and suggestive. It does not present a resolved visual statement, but instead poses a series of important questions: Is this an act of intimacy? Is this an act of violence? Is this a religious rite? Is this a secular rite? Does this woman trust this man? Or has she simply succumbed to his influence? Perhaps it is all of those things… I believe this is one of my most successful portraits because it opens up questions – rather than simply depicting a closed meaning and resolved emotion.

The use of old photographs is central to the series ‘Domestic Reliquary’, in which you modify and overlay found images with graphic devices. How did this series come about?

Again, I use found photographs, which I scan and then print using the Salted Paper process. This process uses simple household chemicals to reproduce an image (table salt and citric acid from lemons). The resulting prints are unique but imperfect domestic artefacts. I then use a mix of media to create graphic shapes on the surface of the print.

Who are the people in the pictures?

They are unidentified figures in photographs I have collected over the years.  However, in my work, they become surrogates for my family and our ancestors.

I use photographs from several different generations to explore the cyclical nature of domestic trauma and abuse. The images are both anonymous and personal to me. They contain an ambiguity that I hope throws into question the simple veracity of the photographic image.

In using this visual ‘language’ of image and graphic, what do you want to suggest to the imagination of the viewer?

The graphics are designed to draw a connection between the domestic environment and the idea of religious sanctuary. My intention is to create my own ‘sacred’ visual vocabulary. For example, the architecture of the home itself might become a halo, a window might be transformed into a shield, a parasol might become an implement of violence or self-defence.

Linking this to my personal life, it was a cult-like religious experience and a tumultuous psychological relationship with immediate family members that contributed to my loss of spiritual and domestic faith. Ultimately, this is a concept that I explore in every project.

What do you want to communicate to others through these images?

The lessons we learn within the domestic space affect our own lives and the people we interact with on a daily basis. I guess I want people to think about that concept … and take it seriously.

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘Someone’s Version of Heaven: Hiawatha National Forest, Upstate Michigan’ 2016 from the series ‘The Tonic of Wilderness’

‘The Tonic of Wildness’ is a complex and very personal story. Can you tell me about how it began?

I believe, as artists, it is our responsibility to respond to what is happening in the world – to become a kind of mirror reflecting on events. I was – and still am – terrified by what is happening politically in the United States. I felt an urgency to act, to create a project that might reflect how I and many other Americans are feeling. I was afraid for my friends – those that might be threatened by policies enacted by the incoming political regime [in 2017]. I was afraid for myself and thought that I might lose certain freedoms that I hold sacred. So, I fled… and I used my camera to document my journey. This was an attempt to transform my emotions and feelings into something tangible – to make sense of the confusion, to weave a tapestry from the tangled threads of madness.

The narrative unfolds as a kind of escape and a search for redemption.

I was running away for sure. But I came to realise that it is impossible to escape and that it’s better to take responsibility. It was a spiritual quest as well – one that involved a near-death experience that really put things in perspective for me. Through it, I came to realise that simply escaping into nature was not the route to redemption.

How do you see the relationship between the more closed domestic world depicted in ‘The Hereditary Estate’ and ‘Next of Kin’, and this work about temporarily relocating the familial into an alien space, one that is disconnected from those domestic histories and habits?

We carry out into the world the lessons that we learn in the home. My mother, my father, my grandmother, my distant ancestors – they were all there with me in the woods. Their words appeared on billboards beside the highway, their voices emanated from the radio in my truck, they whispered to me from the darkness of the forest. I was running from the madness of the world and from my heritage, which followed me like a shadow.

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘Ghost: White Mountain National Park, New Hampshire’ 2016
from the series ‘The Tonic of Wilderness’

Do you think there are particular ethical issues to consider when exploring your own family and its histories in an artistic work – given one has a privileged knowledge and perspective in such circumstances?

I believe you have to be clear about what you are doing and what you intend to do. I want this work to help people. I want my photographs, and the time I spend making them with my family, to offer some opportunity for communication, understanding, healing and redemption. I would never publish a photograph that I felt might be damaging to someone that I love. My family has demonstrated great courage in their honesty and their willingness to be vulnerable. They have allowed me to tell their story in the hope that, through these images, other people might find their own peace.

What kind of response to your work do you get from the public?

Some people are sceptical at first, but generally come around when I explain my process and intentions. Many people approach me after lectures because they have had similar experiences. The struggles that my family face are not unique; in fact, they are very common.

© Daniel W. Coburn ‘The Matriarch’ 2013 from the series ‘Heredity Estate’

What advice would you give to someone who was considering making a photographic series within his or her own domestic space and featuring his or her closest relations and friends. How does one negotiate intimacy while speaking to an audience of strangers?

Be passionate, take risks, be respectful, and be honest with yourself and the people that you love. Relationships are hard work… be willing to fully invest yourself. Be conscious of yourself and be willing to reveal your own faults before you use the camera to scrutinise the faults of someone else.

Biographical Notes

Daniel W. Coburn was born in San Bernardino, California in 1976. He received his Master of Fine Art degree with distinction from the University of New Mexico in 2013 and served as Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of Kansas until 2018. His first monograph, ‘The Hereditary Estate’, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2015. In 2017, Daniel was awarded a prestigious John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and was a finalist for the Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture. He currently lives in Chicago, where he continues his work as an independent artist and educator. 

Photo © Bruce Wagman

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the January 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.

First published in English at Talking Pictures February 2020.