The Hard Truths of Family Life
In Florida, Kathryn Harrison photographs her mother and brother with fearless intensity.
By John Jeremiah Sullivan
When Sally Mann started photographing her kids and husband thirty years ago, it was probably the most interesting case of a photographer turning the lens on their immediate family since John William Draper covered his sister’s face in flour and made her sit perfectly still for sixty-five seconds in 1840. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Mann made us look at our own family members differently, as people we know intimately and, at the same time, as actors in a drama more vast and complicated than we can grasp or hope to control. She didn’t discover all of that, but she made it newly visible. Work of that power ought to produce progeny and spawn, and hers has.
One of the most recent—and promising—cases is a woman named Kathryn Harrison. She’s thirty. She’s not the brilliant and scandalous author Kathryn Harrison who wrote The Kiss (1997), just same name, same spelling. “I have run into that many times,” she said on the phone recently. “I just say, ‘Not me.’ But I do think it’s kind of fascinating that she’s a writer who also does very personal work.” As for Sally Mann, “I’ve met her once, at a show. I don’t think she would remember me. But she’s one of the leading ladies in my life. It’s her work. It’s her fearlessness in putting those images out into the world.”
Harrison is also a Southern woman (from Florida) who takes pictures of her immediate relatives. Many involve her chronically ill mother, a major force in her life, but her new work focuses mainly on her brother, Ray, who suffers from schizophrenia. “He got into drugs and got sent to an institution. We didn’t get to spend any time together for some really important years.” The pictures are searingly intimate. They seem to have been taken from closer than you’re supposed to stand. Yet, they don’t leer.
“Some people have said, ‘It’s so exploitative,’” she told me. “But he wants it, too.” He being Ray. The work is almost a collaboration between artist and model. “He’ll call me and say, ‘I want to make a picture of this!’” A self-made artist’s book by Harrison (yet to be published) has Ray’s drawings and writings in it. “My brother only draws when he’s high,” she said. “In that sense, his drawings are all very dark. Vines growing out of a pot, every time.” She basically let him art direct the book: “In the beginning, I was shooting medium-format, and he would show up on my college campus, in Sarasota—always on foot. He would take me to all of these hidden places, where he’d overdosed, or where a guy did this crazy thing.”
Harrison admires the painter Caspar David Friedrich, and she allows her brother a certain romantic drama, even in his self-accelerated decay. In one of my favorite pictures by her, Ray is seated on an overturned plastic recycling bucket in the driveway. He is shirtless, in camo shorts, giving himself a random haircut with a buzzer. Hair clumps fall and lie on the asphalt at his feet. It is the trashiest thing a person could possibly do, yet he sits on the bucket as on a throne, glaring at you like a king whose time you are wasting. “He presents himself with all of his chaos,” Harrison said. She does the same.
John Jeremiah Sullivan lives in North Carolina and is a writer for The New York Times Magazine.