Tealia Ellis Ritter – the Model Family

I grew up in a family that never hugged each other.  We never said “I love you”.  Punishment over praise – “think about what you’ve done”.  The definition of a family is fluid nowadays.  Family units morph – they expand, they collapse.  I wonder why we never hugged each other.

Tealia Ellis Ritter’s book The Model Family belies its title.  It doesn’t depict a model family, but simply a family.  A single unit among millions, billions.  The visual aesthetics of the late eighties to early nineties, as well as the prominence of images shot indoors within the family home, remind me of Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home, only Ritter replaces vivid technicolor with monochrome.

Ritter documented her own family over a period of about thirty years, from 1989 to 2021, marking burials, the burning of possessions, and likely all the birthdays in between.  Other contemporary projects like Deanna Dikeman’s Leaving and Waving and Seiichi Furuya’s Memoires series have taken a similar approach, using the camera over achingly long periods of time to capture all of the things we love and lose and all of the people we let go of and leave behind.  And the pets: cats, dogs, birds, snakes, rabbits.  All of the pets.

Tealia Ellis Ritter’s book The Model Family belies its title.  It doesn’t depict a model family, but simply a family.  A single unit among millions, billions.

Ritter’s work overwhelms its reader with emotional states – the imagery evokes a vast spectrum from the pure joy and innocence of youth to the depths of fear as one faces death.  The universality of its reference point is its greatest strength.  We all have our own family histories and experiences to refer back to when viewing these images, allowing the reader to have a more personal and nuanced relationship with the book.  

Were the holidays forced?  Was everything fake?  A turkey neck hangs limply over the edge of a baking tray, ready to be cooked.  Thanksgiving.

How many times does one clean out a closet in a lifetime?  At one point, Ritter lists some of the things that her own family burned, turning memory into ash:

The divorce papers
Two old teddy bears
Oscar’s brown bathrobe
Things too painful to keep

There are so many standout images and sequences throughout the book that it’s hard to know where to begin with a review of the work.  One pairing, “Self-portrait one week before emergency surgery” and “Black sunflowers”, act like the visual equivalent of a thunderstorm and birds chirping in its aftermath.  The former image depicts the artist’s nude torso, cropped close, her hand clutching the shutter release cable in a way that appears almost violent – tension built up but never released.  Growing up, I never saw my father cry.  The latter photograph shows monochromatic flowers and their leaves reaching upward toward the sky.  My brother left the country and started his own family.

“Crystal and David dressed for Margot’s funeral” and “The room Oscar died in, after the bed was removed” are two photographs spaced far apart in the book’s sequence, but they mirror each other in a way that renders death as something stark and stifling.  Sometimes it is the dead who bury the living with their absence.  My cat is nine years old.  One image titled “Booey” is of a dead cat in a snowy grave.  It made me break down in tears.

Despite the melancholy that exists in many of these images, Ritter interjects them with ones that effuse youth, joy, and love.  There are two images titled “Kiss”, one from 2001 and the other from 2019.  Two kisses, two decades apart.  Love, or some degree of it, is ever-present.  

The miracle isn’t in how we experienced the past or how we see the present; it’s the fact that we are alive and able to see and experience things at all.

The edit and sequence meander in a way that merges the past and present together with equal importance.  The pictures are not presented chronologically, challenging the reader to put the pieces together themselves and to make sense of it all.  But having a precise timeline for the images doesn’t matter.  The miracle isn’t in how we experienced the past or how we see the present; it’s the fact that we are alive and able to see and experience things at all.

Ritter’s uncanny ability to capture significant moments in her family’s history over the course of three decades is the driving force behind the work.  She is able to notice the magic and mystery before her eyes as it occurs and take it all in through her lens.  It’s a noteworthy and enviable feat for any photographer, and in Ritter’s case, the multi-generational narrative woven through these moments leaves the pages charged with a remarkable emotional energy.  

Bodies.  Living, breathing, loving, dying.  The body is a central subject of many of Ritter’s photographs.  Young, old, and everything in between.  How many metamorphoses does a single human body experience in a lifetime?  A slightly blurry, grainy portrait of a young girl is followed by an intensely blood-soaked hand, the two photographs made fifteen years apart.  Is blood really thicker than water?

Family, at its best, rewards us with a sense of community and continuity.  At its worst it leaves traces of trauma that trickle down through generations.  How can one even attempt to sum up what the word means?  One image in the book, a still life of a single Post-It note, makes an applaudable effort:

I love you.
I accept you
just the way
you are.
I forgive you now.

I’ve recently started hugging my mother and father.

Tealia Ellis Ritter
Loose Joints, 2022



Text ©Andy Pham;
all images ©Tealia Ellis Ritter/Loose Joints