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In the Kitchen by Dona Schwartz

Dona Schwartz tagged a photo of you in her kitchen, to see this photo follow the text.

In the age of Facebook, when all our visual diaries are open to the world, In the Kitchen provides a smart coalescence of imagery, poetry, and prose that successfully enhances this pervasive impulse to follow the characters in other people’s lives through personal photographs. In August 2003, Dona Schwartz, a self-proclaimed “photo-ethnographer,” began photographing the everyday activities in the kitchen of her newly expanded Midwestern family. After she and her boyfriend decided to move in together, their combined family amounted to six kids total; four of whom would be living at home, three girls and one boy ages ten to seventeen (plus two dogs). Add someone with celebrity status or an elimination round, and this premise would

lend itself to the next hit reality TV show on Bravo. Rather than offering a mere expose of their first undeniably volatile years as a newly blended family, the images and texts from In the Kitchen provide an incredibly touching insight into the seemingly banal occurrences that come to define a family and its members.

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the sense that Schwartz is constantly fluttering back and forth between mother, artist, and social scientist. Knowing that she is weighing what role to fill, the viewer can easily imagine that Schwartz at times might be dodging a potential outlash from her teenage subject by setting down the camera and scrambling some eggs. She focuses on the kitchen as the nexus of family life, a neo-hearth in contemporary American culture where everything important happens: mouths fed, girlfriends visit, stories shared, tantrums had, death lamented, boundaries tested. As to be expected in the drama of adolescence, Schwartz also surveys the kitchen as poignant battle ground between parent and child. By turning her training and perspective as a social

scientist inward, Schwartz objectifies very personal situations. Sharpie covered arms and dyed-purple hair become “clues of emergent identity.” Chopping tomatoes and doing homework become “rites of passage.” Schwartz’ photographs provoke the senses. They beckon us to imagine the sounds, warmth, and smells of a social center.

While the images provide solid ethnographic insight into the family’s development over the two years they were made, the texts significantly bolster the project. The preface, by George Eastman House’s Alison Nordstrom, contextualizes Schwartz’ photographs within both photographic tradition and cultural history, providing necessary links outside of the very personal project. While offering fundamental back story, in her own essay Schwartz acknowledges her interwoven perspective as mother, daughter, spouse, photographer and ethnographer. There she delivers intimate questions with the same level of logical exploration seen in her pictures: “What makes a family ‘whole’?” “What makes a family ‘broken’?” “How, when, and to what degree does each generation leave imprint on the next?” Yet it is Marion Winik’s poems, inspired by Schwartz’s photographs, that marvelously set the pace of the book. They punctuate the rhythm of the photographic sequence, dynamically evoking the viewer’s senses and offering lyrical accompaniment with poems such as The Revolution Will Not be Televised (But it might be on YouTube), which provides another avenue by which the viewer can identify with the project. A single photograph from this series is unlikely to be as powerful as the series as a whole, which is why, amplified by the texts, the book really is the most successful end form of this project. Schwartz has created a smart and emotive visual document that resonates well beyond the kitchen.