Essay: Paul Elie writes about the family panoramas

Paul Elie wrote The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a group portrait of the American Catholic writers Flannery O’Connor Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.  It received the National Book Critics Circle Award nomination.  He writes for the Times, the Atlantic, Vanity Fair, etc.  He’s a senior fellow in Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.  He wrote a New York Times Magazine feature about Martin Scorsese and the making of “Silence”.

 

Brothers and sisters tumble from giant rocks.   Parents and children walk the dog, stroll at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, or involve themselves in the complex geometry of the playground swings. A large family relaxes in a pool, thrilling to the way light, heat, and cool water draw them together.       

These are families in the panoramic photographs of Holger Thoss.  Thoss’s work deepens our sense of the mysteries of family life: the richness of it, the variety of it, and the ways time and space, kinship and love, converge and join people to one another.        

The word panorama suggests breadth, balance, and wholeness.  The roots of th word are Greek: pan- for all, horam for view or sight.  The shape of the word is regular, the consonants and vowels alternating invariably.  In the history of photography, a panorama is typically an unpopulated landscape or a stretch of city (Josef Sudek’s Prague panoramas).   

Thoss’s panoramas are different.  Characteristically, they show several people.   They are unstable, often combining multiple images registered from one minute to a quarter of an hour apart.   They thrive on movement, people jostling in close proximity to one another.   They represent an extended moment – celebrate it.

Thoss was born in 1966 near Cologne, the then West Germany, and had a gymnasium education there.  His father, who worked in the air cargo business, was a casual photographer.  After compulsory military service, in 1988 Thoss traveled to New York, and he has lived in the city ever since.  Today, living and working near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, he calls himself “a Brooklynite with a German accent.”    

Thoss’s photographic apprenticeship tracks with some of the most outstanding photographic work of last thirty years. He interned at Aperture, the photography journal and press, when Michael Hofmann was running it (and living upstairs) – interned “mainly in the gallery.”  While in the documentary studies program at the International Center of Photography (where he now teaches) he took a workshop with Gilles Peress, the acclaimed French photographer.  Then as now, Peress was affiliated with Magnum, the photo collective founded by Robert Capa.  Through Peress, Thoss went to work at Magnum.  He printed photographs by Peress (the Northern Ireland images) and James Nachtwey (the acclaimed images from Sudan, then stricken by famine).  And he gained knowledge in the art and craft of photography.    

“Magnum: that was my school,” Thoss recalls.  “I got to learn from the masters – to see how they prepared their meals, so to speak, and to see how they lived and breathed photography.  It was enlightening.”

Thoss’s own image-making advanced during several trips he took to Poland in the early 1990s, when the country was holding its first democratic elections after the fall of Communism.   Photographs he took there anticipate his present panoramic work: they depict groups of people, sitting close or standing shoulder to shoulder, who are looking in different directions, each figure held – transfixed – in the space created, or implied, by his or her attention.       

Some years later, family life impelled him to develop the art of the panorama.  By then he was married and the father of two boys, and working as a commercial photographer, but also photographing weddings and other events.  He used his Leica combined with a panorama tripod head, trying to capture the superabundance of Renaissance family portraits and the kinetic energy of Brueghel’s paintings The Peasant Wedding and Children’s Games.

In 2007 the four of them spent time  on a century-old family house on Long Island Sound, and he used panoramic techniques to capture some of their everyday doings there.  A family friend who saw the photographs was astounded.  “You’ve got to do this for others,” she said – and in time, the family panoramas grew out of his other event work, “as people whose weddings I’d done then asked, `Can you do our family?’”

A panorama taken of his family near his parents’ home in Germany in 2013 captures the direction of that early work.  A small boat is a short ways off the bank of a shallow river. Children, parents, and grandparents claim places on it: they wade into the water, they climb over the rail, they find tenable positions on deck. Brought together in a single panoramic print, their actions across fifteen minutes suggest the lure of the boat, the hivelike energy of a family absorbed and at play, and the elegant arc of pleasure inscribed as they go from shore to boat to shore again.  The panorama also suggests the vantage point of the photographer, who registers the complexity of the scene through skill and patience.     

None of the family members’ faces is clearly visible.  That suits Thoss just fine.  Obliquity, in his view, is part of the panoramic effect.   “You are not trying to show people’s best side, just the side that is available to the camera,” he explains.  “It’s not about what people look like – it’s about what they are.”   

A panorama of a family enjoying a sunny day together in a backyard swimming pool heightens the effect. The pool, all angles set against a placid stand of trees, is already an intriguing shape.  Eleven figures are in and around it.  These eleven, it becomes clear on closer examination, are actually only five: husband, wife, and their three children.  A boy is leaping to catch a ball – and the same boy is balancing his kid sister aloft on the palms of his hands. The kid sister held aloft is also in the pool, whipping water through her hair in a fantastic pinwheel.  The husband is approaching the pool – and he is in it, bearing a boy on his shoulders.  The smile of a daughter at ease in a float is echoed by the smile of her mother at the right, smiling proudly – and with good reason.   A whole afternoon – a whole dimension of this family’s life – is suggested by the panorama, which has the permanence of a still photograph and the energy of a movie.

Another swimming-pool panorama opens the image vertically, as well as horizontally: this one shows the water below the surface as well as the leaping, diving, splashing children above it -and shows, too, a girl swimming underwater in seeming synchrony with the kids above.    

“In these panoramas, there’s supposed to be too much going on,” Thoss says.  “I am trying to find different layers of images that go together, and there can be a beautiful moment in the developing process when it happens: there’s too much going on, but it all goes together.”      

There’s too much going on, but it all goes together: Thoss’s offhand description of his work is an apt and telling characterization of family life, too – alive, organic, changing, with  more centers of attention and drama than the eye can see at one time.    

At this point, Thoss has made more than one hundred panoramas, and they are in the collections of Jamie Dimon, Guy Bennett, the Herreras and others.   The panoramas are now an essential part of his work, as more and more families seek the original group portraiture he creates – and as families he has photographed in the past ask him to return and create a second, fifth, or sixth panorama.  And yet – naturally – he has continued to make panoramas of his own family: himself; his wife, Jenny; their teenage sons Walker and Miller; and parents, brothers, sisters and cousins from both sides.  In those panoramas, Thoss leaves camera and tripod aside and steps into the image as a son, husband, and father.  

He approaches the act of photographing in the same way whether the family is his own, a family he has seen grown and change through the lens over the years, or a family he is photographing for the first time.  “I don’t feel separate from what is in the image,” he says.  “When I do this, I am always a part of it.”