Tuesday, November 24

Photographer Catherine Panebianco: ‘These are my family photos, but they are the story of all families’ | Photography

Wamerican photographer hen Catherine Panebianco She was a child, her family moved around North America a lot: when she entered high school she had maybe 10 different homes – “in Pennsylvania, Georgia, a couple of places in California, two places in New York …” One constant, however, was a set of photographic slides. His father, Glenn, a metallurgical engineer, had taken the photographs as a young man in Toronto during the 1950s and 1960s. On Christmas Day each year, wherever they were, Glenn carried a huge, pre-war metal projector and put up an old slide screen. Then the family would gather around it, the kids in pajamas with a bag of popcorn, and they would listen to stories they had heard “a million times.”

“We all rolled our eyes, especially when we were younger,” recalls Panebianco, who is now 56 years old. “But we secretly enjoyed the idea that it was something we had to do together; it was a tradition we had. We moved around a lot, but my dad cared enough about those slides to take them everywhere with him. And even though when you were little you might not understand it or appreciate it at all, you still sat. And you cared. It’s a memory that stays with you. “

Panebianco, now a photographer living in Jamestown, western New York State, didn’t think much about the slides until 2016. She was at her parents’ house and her mother, Jean, was trying to organize the images. Panebianco saw a slide of Jean, then in her early 20s, reclining in a boat on a lake in Canada, and thought it might work for an Instagram project (phrase of the day was “where are you standing from”). That afternoon, she went down to nearby Chautauqua Lake: “I held it, I thought maybe I would put it in the lake, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” says Panebianco. “When I started to move it, I took a lot of photos, I saw the backgrounds lined up. At the time it was a great photo and it was perfect for Instagram for that day. “

Racing Time, from Catherine Panebianco's photo series No Memory Is Ever Alone.
Race time. Photography: Catherine Panebianco

Four years later, Panebianco has completed a project that calls Without memory Is always alone. There are about 30 photographs in the series: each one takes one of his father’s old slides and relocates it to a modern setting that has personal resonance for Panebianco. There are no digital gimmicks, just a clever and thorough combination of backgrounds, lights, and moods. “I wanted my hand to be there,” he says. “At first, it was a mistake: I went down to the lake and it was easier to hold. But it ties the series together, and since it’s my past and my present, I wanted those two things to be physically linked. “

Panebianco has had some unexpected reactions to the set, which in September won a Critics’ Choice Award from the LensCulture photography website. The most common response has been from people telling you that the pictures remind them of their own childhood. “These are my family stories, my family photos, but they are the stories of all families,” he says. “Everyone has the picture of the brother sitting at the Christmas table making faces. Everybody has this guy who got drunk at a party all the time. It would be a bummer if they saw my dad on the boat or whatever. But if you remember, ‘Oh, that trip I took with my dad …’ I really like that people feel that way when they see them. “

Sunday Supper, from the series No Memory Is Ever Alone.
Sunday dinner. Photography: Catherine Panebianco

Another comment Panebianco hears is that the photographs have provided an escape from the Covid anxiety and anguish many feel. being separated from their families. “Nostalgia gives you comfort,” he says. “In times of stress or anxiety, there is something comforting about looking back and thinking, ‘These people did it and we will.’ You may run into some obstacles along the way, but life goes on. “

For Panebianco, working on the series has brought her closer to her father, who is now 82 and also lives in Jamestown. Having a shared project was especially welcome after her mother died last year. “I’m glad you saw some of them and you loved them,” says Panebianco. “We didn’t know she was going to die, it was quite sudden, but she would be very happy that this gave me and my dad a really good connection.”

This Christmas, Panebianco hopes his father will bring out the slides and temperamental projector again. “It’s still a tradition, but last year we didn’t do it because it was the first Christmas without my mom and we just couldn’t do it,” she says. “But we will try this year.”

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