Joan Albert photographed her sons growing up over two decades

In 'Family Photographs', the late photographer's work between the 70s and 90s is published into her first monograph.

by Zoe Whitfield
27 May 2022, 6:30am

"I would like to call attention to some remarkable photography made in the late 1970s and early 1980s by nine women in Massachusetts," the photographer Mark Steinmetz wrote in a TIME magazine piece in 2014. The article, which went on to detail the shared characteristics of these women's work – "…no large gestures or dramas here nor easy sentiment" – was the earliest starting point for Family Photographs, a new Stanley/Barker published monograph from the late Joan Albert. "After that article came out, he continued saying, 'wouldn't it be great if we could get a book of Joan's work done'," explains Sage Sohier, a friend of Joan's and another of the nine women Mark mentioned, who edited the new book. 

The pair first met at Massachusetts College of Art in 1979: Sage was 25 and had just graduated, while Joan, a decade older, was getting her MFA. "We liked each other's work, and we liked each other," she says. "When the class ended, we got together to look at each other's work and give feedback, as we trusted each other's judgment. The friendship grew from looking at pictures together." Her work from that time would later form Americans Seen, while the pictures in Family Photographs focus on Joan's two sons, Martin and Nathan; another son, Jason, had died in an accident. Shot at home between the late 70s and early 90s, the pictures show the two boys growing up, from kids sat around in their pants to teenagers with girlfriends, and 20-year olds with Richard Avedon posters on the wall.

a young model sits askew on a kitchen stool, blowing bubblegum

Though the book also features images of Joan's friends (it's split into two sections, 'Mine' and 'Theirs'), she and Sage never turned the camera on each other. "It never really occurred to us," remarks Sage today. Instead, they would sit in Joan's kitchen, drink tea and talk about their photography. "Just talking about what worked and didn't work; what it was like to photograph strangers and to photograph people you knew. Occasionally it came up that parts of the photo world, like society, seemed like an 'old boys club' that we were excluded from, but that was the world we'd grown up in. It was nothing new. If we talked about anything, it was joking about that a little bit. Mostly, we were telling stories and laughing about our lives."

In 2012 Joan died of a heart attack, following more than two decades of chronic pain due to a benign tumour on her spine. While Family Photographs is her first monograph, her work was featured in Peter Galassi's 1991 show Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort at the MoMA, and later in Mike Mulno's The Teen Years at Joseph Bellows Gallery in 2016. "She always intended to do a book," Sage says, "but it was very hard to publish photo books in the 1980s and 1990s. There were few photobook publishers, and they liked to do runs of five to seven thousand copies, which doesn't work for most photo books – you have to either be really famous or photographing famous people. But the photobook industry has changed a lot."

a young model watches tv in his room

Martin and Nathan, now with families of their own and jobs in the creative industries ("They were clearly very influenced by their mom," Sage says), were supportive of the project early on. "They loved the idea; they knew that their mom had always wanted to do a book. They understood what she was doing in her work and always seemed totally fine with having the pictures of them shown," she explains. "I drove to Martin's and spent the day collecting the prints Joan had considered her best work or exhibition prints. I hadn't looked at her pictures [for a while], except for a few I had – we had swapped pictures with each other – so it was great. It was like coming to them in a new way and seeing them. Not for the first time, because they were very familiar, but with a fresh eye."

While separating the work into two categories was a useful tool in streamlining the book – half focuses on Martin, Nathan and Joan's parents, the other on Joan's friends with their children – to Joan, the two groups were very much part of the same whole. "She always considered all of her work to be of one piece. When she photographed other people's families, she considered that to be very similar to her work about her sons," Sage says. "They were all about family, pictures about the inner lives of children; a lot about parent-child relationships. And though Joan never made any self-portraits, I always felt that when she photographed other people with their children, she was examining her own relationship with her sons. It was like photographing herself and her sons by other means."

Family Photographs is available to buy online from the Photo Book Store now.

a woman sits with her arm around a young child
a young model lies in the top bunk of a bunk bed, surrounded by tennis rackets and other paraphenalia
a young model with a large bandage on his cheek looks at something off frame
a young model lies awake in bed, tucked under the covers


All images courtesy Joan Albert and Stanley/Barker