Intimate photos of family life in ‘80s Massachusetts

Intimate photos of family life in ‘80s Massachusetts
At home — Photographer Susan Kandel remembers capturing two different families as they celebrated milestones or simply went about their lives, offering a surreal glimpse into the households of strangers.

After graduating college, Susan Kandel’s parents gave her a Minolta camera as a gift – something she had never thought to want. “I was afraid of dropping it or losing it,” Kandel says, until she began using it regularly on a cross-country road trip that summer. 

“I shot ten rolls of film. It seemed like a lot; later, I would easily shoot ten rolls a day,” she says. “I discovered that I liked taking pictures and that with camera in hand, I noticed more. I still didn’t think of photography as a vital part of my life but I was intrigued.”

A year later, Kandel wandered into the Creative Photo Lab at MIT in Cambridge, MA, looking for access to a darkroom and met photographer and professor Tod Papageorge. He struck up a deal: Kandel could attend his class in exchange for eight hours a week painting walls, mopping floors, and monitoring the darkroom. A photographer was born. 

In 1979, while pursuing her MA at Massachusetts College of Art, Kandel discovered her passion for photographing families while hanging out at Revere Beach near Boston. “Summer was ending, though, and I wanted another way to photograph families,” Kandel says. 

As fate would have it, newly elected Pope John Paul II was making his first North American tour, along the way becoming the first pope to visit the White House. While in the United States, he arranged to celebrate Mass in Boston Common on October 1. 

“I was fairly indifferent to the Pope, but I thrilled to the energy of the crowd,” Kandel says. Although she didn’t make any good photos that day, Kandel found a couple of families who agreed to let her into their homes and photograph their families. 

What started off as a thesis project quickly took root and over the next ten years, Kandel would explore life inside the family home. In her new book, At Home (Stanley/Barker), Kandel chronicles the same two families she met that day along with others she encountered along the way.

“I was fascinated by the concrete reality of home, the physical spaces that formed a backdrop to so many family moments,” Kandel says. “I went to their homes for celebrations, events, and holidays. They were warm and welcoming to me, and interacting among themselves in environments that they had created. People fall into patterns in their homes, daily dramas.” 

In At Home, Kandel chronicles the shared intimacies of everyday life, the magical and mundane moments that shape our sense of self and connection to others. We witness multiple generations coming together to share milestones or simply go about their lives, Kandel’s camera preserving the fragments of memory we often forget. 

“I was grateful to be allowed into such intimate spaces,” Kandel says. Over time, she became a treasured part of the families as well. “A few years into this project, I had hurt my back and couldn’t work. One mom said that if I lost my job and apartment, I could move into her house. That knocked me out.”

At Home is available now on Stanley/Barker.

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