Awkward Family Pet Photos: Kitsch Education 101

| December 17, 2011

Last week, while having breakfast in a diner, I watched the funniest interview with two authors on TV. The morning news crew was interviewing the editors/authors of Awkward Family Pet Photos, a book featuring old and unstaged photos of families with their pets. A series of examples flashed across the screen, including this image, accompanied by this closed-caption statement made by one of the authors: “This is a woman who… just really loves her monkey.”  I laughed so hard I started choking on my coffee.  The other diners looked at me with concern/disdain, a special Brooklyn expression. What an amazing book!

So what’s the story behind this book?  The two authors don’t offer much information on their website, but the story seems to be that they started a website collecting “awkward family photos” and the site got so popular they decided to publish the book version; Awkward Family Pet Photos is the sequel to Awkward Family Photos.  You can buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indie Bound, and it was published by Three Rivers Press.

When I first graduated from college, I moved to Seattle on a whim without a real idea of what I wanted to do with my life.  Maybe I’d learn to make perfect cappuccinos, maybe I’d work for a magazine (wrong city!) or maybe I’d start a band.  I wasn’t terribly concerned.  I had studied photography in school, and so when I saw the position open for a portrait photographer at a local family-owned photo studio called Yuen Lui Studios, I applied and took the job. I took photos like the ones featured in this book all the time. It was a magical job where I got to be the creator, not just a mere consumer, of outstanding kitsch. And yes, people brought in their pets.  I still have a copy of the photo I took of the old man, his dog, and his miniature horse.  I’d post it, but copyright and a concern for personal privacy forbids me.  You’ll just have to imagine it. Old man. Dog. Horse.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Gottesman Library does not hold a copy of Awkward Family Pet Photos, though I would like to offer that there is plenty of educational value in both recording and viewing the slice of human nature on display in American portrait photography.  What does it mean to “capture” someone’s image?  Why do we record these awkward views of ourselves and mail them to friends and to family over the holidays?  It’s only December 17th, and I’ve already received 15 or so holiday cards, most of which feature professional family portraits. Most of these images are classy, but what constitutes class?  At what point does an image cross the line and instead become kitsch?  To study portraits is to study so many elements of our culture: society, taste, image, and human connection, not to mention lighting technique, photographic expression, and fashion.

But don’t worry, the NYPL has a copy!