Looking through the Photographer’s Lens: A View of New York City Homes and Families

Heather Weston, photographer of “At Home.”

By Amanda Zambito

Heather Weston sweeps leaves and dust off of the floor of The Glass House, an art gallery in Brooklyn, as the photography project, At Home, hangs on the walls around her. Weston, a Brooklyn-based photographer, is the artist who photographed At Home, so naturally, she wants to keep the space in pristine condition.

Light passes through the glass walls and illuminates fifty-two photographs. Each photograph captures a different family in their home. Rather than a posed family portrait, these photographs are casual and unstructured, promoting the expression of each family’s unique personality.

The Glass House, an art gallery affiliated and located to the left of the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn.

The Glass House, an art gallery affiliated with and located to the left of the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn.

Heather Weston sits in The Glass House art gallery in Brooklyn while surrounded by her photography exhibit.

Heather Weston sits in The Glass House art gallery in Brooklyn while surrounded by her photography exhibit.

Weston exudes confidence and ease as she sets the broom aside in exchange for a chair in the middle of The Glass House. As a woman in her forties, her unfaltering gaze could be described as intimidating. Dressed in all black from nearly head-to-toe, she wears no makeup. Yet this daunting appearance is shattered when she speaks: exuding warmth and friendliness, she is more than eager to discuss her project with anyone who asks.

“At Home is about connecting people and exploring the spaces in which we all live,” she said. It is “a photographic essay, a glimpse into the American home.” From the definitve way that she describes At Home, it may be surprising that thisproject came from a place of frustration and began without a solid direction.

“At first I wasn’t trying to prove anything through At Home,” said Weston. “The idea for this project truthfully came when I was having a breakdown.” After moving into a 450-square-foot apartment with her husband, newborn daughter, and cat, Weston thought, “It’s not big enough. I can’t do this.”

Then, she realized living in limited space was a common issue faced by New York City families. “How are other people using their space?,” Weston thought. “I needed to get in. I wanted to explore what was happening here in New York City.” To accomplish this exploration, Weston assigned herself At Home, which she completed on the weekends throughout 2011 in addition to her commercial work.

This project came at an interesting time in Weston’s career. “I wanted to remind myself that I am an artist. I wanted to give myself a creative challenge and concentrate on building a career as a portrait photographer,” she said. Weston, who received her first camera when she was ten and began taking pictures when she was thirteen, graduated from Art Center College, a commercial photography school in California. After college, she worked as an assistant and followed her photography career from Los Angeles to London before settling in New York with her husband in 2000.

Weston began by reaching out to families with whom she was already acquainted. This included relatives, friends, and fellow parents on the PTA of her daughter’s school. “I started off deciding I was going to photograph all of our friends, because it was natural that I was going to see them throughout the year,” said Weston. “And then I really tried to search out people that I didn’t know really well, people that I had an every-day connection with,” she said.

The photographs depict a diverse array of families, including straight-, gay-, and foster-parents, as well as mixed-race, single-parent, and first-generation families. “I really wanted to show the diversity of the people I know living in New York,” said Weston.“There’s such a huge socioeconomic range in these images, but I gave everyone the same artistic weight no matter their socioeconomic standing,” said Weston.

The Land-Alam family.

The Land-Alam family.

 

The Tremitiere family.

The Tremitiere family.

By photographing space, Weston tuned into an important factor of homes, especially in New York City: architecture. “There is no doubt that there are things like light and ceiling height that have a big affect on your mood, your attitude, and your social and psychological outlook on the world,” said Jon Ritter, a New York University Clinical Assistant Professor of Art History. Ritter research areas include 19th and 20th century architecture and urbanism. “New York is a place where there are premiums to have these luxuries,” he said.

Weston began each shoot by searching the family’s home to find the room that was not only the most interesting, but also the brightest. Aiming to be as unobtrusive as possible to maximize the authenticity of her photographs, Weston used only natural light to illuminate her shots. Because of these low-light situations, she used a cable release to take the photographs after setting up her camera—a Canon 1DS Mark 2—on a tripod.

The cable release did more than prevent a blurry image: it also gave her the freedom to interact with families during the shoot. “I would stand up and talk to the family, so I could be taking pictures without them always being aware that I was taking them,” Weston said. At Home is more than an exploration of the use of space: it is an exploration of the diversity between families.

Natural light, provided by the weekend mornings, can be seen in the photograph of the Gilbert-Donovans.

Natural light, provided by the weekend mornings, can be seen in the photograph of the Gilbert-Donovans.

Because of this, the photographs are vastly different. Some families are captured sprawling on couches with limbs intertwined as they stare directly into Weston’s lens. Other families are engaged with one another as they sit at the kitchen table and completely disregard Weston and her camera.

The Bauer family stares directly into Weston's lens.

The Bauer family stares directly into Weston’s lens.

 

The Aukin Jenkins seem to ignore the presence of Weston and her camera.

The Aukin Jenkins seem to ignore the presence of Weston and her camera.

Nicole Kim, wife and mother of the second family Weston photographed, said Weston toured her apartment and decided the living room was the prime location for the shoot. After Weston set up her camera and the Kim’s situated themselves on the couch, the shoot began.

“There was very little instruction during the shoot, other than to tell us to act naturally,” said Kim. “It was over within five minutes.”

The first photograph of the Kims, which is posted in the blog-version of At Home.

The first photograph of the Kims, which is posted Heather Weston’s blog, “Heather Weston Photographs.”

The Kims met Weston in 2006 when their daughters attended the same Pre-K school. “We were flattered that she wanted to include us in her project, especially at such an early stage,” says Kim. Both Kim and her husband, who are not the “most comfortable people in front of the camera,” were a bit nervous about the shoot. “But the kids were really into it,” said Kim. Weston photographed the Kims twice: one before moving to their new apartment (included in her blog), and one after (included in the “At Home” exhibit.

Every shoot was a different experience for Weston. On some occasions, she brought her husband and daughter with her. Other times, she would enjoy brunch with the family. “I would have brunch first and photograph after,” says Weston. In the picture of the Aukin Jenkins (above), Weston and her husband’s post-brunch plates became part of the photograph.

Weston believes objects that people tend to forget—objects usually “left on the floor”—are the most interesting aspects of the shot. A lot of times people would try to create an idealized version of themselves for me to photograph,” Weston said. “But I had a wider angle lens that the families didn’t know about. So in my frame were things that were revealing more personality to the image that they—the subjects—didn’t think about,” she added.

“It is all those little things that add to it,” said Weston.”Im just trying to have a sense of humor when I’m taking the photographs.” In the second photograph of the Kims, these overlooked objects include a ladder peeping from behind the door and a pile of shoes under the couch. “I knew the first thing Nicole was going to say was, ‘Oh my gosh, I wish I would’ve put the ladder behind the door,” said Weston. “They are very good friends of mine, and they know what I do and that I’m up to some tricks.”

Weston was right. “My initial reaction was why didn’t we hide the ladder,” said Kim.

The second photograph of the Kims. The ladder can be seen behind the door, and the shoes can be seen below the couch.

The second photograph of the Kims, where the ladder can be seen behind the door and the shoes can be seen below the couch.

Weston found that the accumulation of “stuff” is a trait shared by many families. “No matter how much space we all have, we all seem to have piles of stuff. We either leave them out in the open without a care in the world, or we try to hide them,” said Weston. “Sometimes people were bustling around and trying to clean. I would set up my camera as quickly as possible and say, ‘Stop cleaning! Stop cleaning!’” she added.

Another intra-familial trait that Weston realized through At Home is the tendency to gravitate toward shared spaces. “People tend to congregate in a main room, especially in New York, where the spaces are smaller,” said Weston. “Even in the biggest places, people want to hang out together.”

Families tend to gravitate toward the living room to spend time together. Photographed: the Beau family.

Families tend to gravitate toward the living room to spend time together. Photographed: the Beau family.

According to Ritter, “having to share limited resources, even on a family level, seems to bring out a kind of familial solidarity.” He added, “We get a sense that the kids, even the teenagers, aren’t off in the corner. There is a kind of shared negotiation of that space.”

The architecture of a home directly affects how families use each room. “There is a hierarchy of public, private, and semi-public space within a house,” said Ritter. By looking at the circulation plan, one can determine where these “semi-public” places are located. Living rooms and dining rooms on lower-level floors are more open to stairways than bedrooms on upper-level floors are.

There are other nuances that also define semi-public spaces, according to Ritter. “Kitchens are related to the idea of food and the ‘gathering around the family table,’ and the living room tends to be the designated social place,” he said. “You would furnish a living room in ways that would be conducive to a social gathering, including the chairs, the couches, and the TV.”

On the last day of 2011, Weston concluded her project with a photograph of her own family. She set up her camera on the tripod as per usual—however, this time there was a difference: she had to be the subject of the photograph. After setting the self-timer, she raced over to her husband and daughter to pose for the photograph.

“I know how difficult it is to be photographed, so I have a lot of understanding for people who are in front of the lens. I try to let myself be photographed so I can see and feel how uncomfortable it is,” said Weston. “It was kind of a comedy of errors,” she added. “I like that my camera battery is in it.”

The Weston Daley family.

The Weston Daley family.

After each shoot, Weston posted the photograph and a description of the family on her blog, Heather Weston Photographs. “I wrote the blog about how I knew the family, the connection, and who they were,” said Weston. The progression of At Home can be seen through these posts, when the project was under its original name 52 Families. In her first post, Weston admits, “I wasn’t sure what my plan for the shot was going to be. I knew I wanted At Home to be about people in their spaces and I wanted it to be a commentary about the different people in my life, but that was it.” Weston concluded the blog with the photograph of her family.

The blog was the only form of At Home from its completion in 2012 to 2014. When it was finished, Lucien Zayan, the owner of the Invisible Dog Art Center (The Glass House is a component of the Invisible Dog), wanted to display it immediately. “He really liked the project from the beginning,” said Weston. He admired its similarity to Dinanda H. Nooney’s photography project, At Home in Brooklyn (1978-79).

Weston said Nooney did not directly inspire her. “I might have had it in my subconscious mind because it was photographed in the 70s, but I saw it in 2011 for the first time,” she said. “I didn’t realize I had stolen her title. But that’s OK, I think it’s alright.”

Weston reopened At Home in 2014. She began a campaign on Kickstarter, a website that connects projects that need funding with donators, to raise money for the opening of the exhibit. Her supporters on Kickstarter hailed from Brooklyn and beyond. “People from far away were excited because they live in small spaces and really connected with the story,” said Weston. On February 20th, she not only reached her pledged goal of $6,500, but also exceeded it by $2,632.

At Home was displayed in the Glass House from March 8th to April 12th, 2014. The exhibit included a scavenger hunt, which prompted visitors to find certain objects in the photographs, and an Instagram challenge, where a visitor could take a photograph in the exhibit and hashtag #westonathome for a chance to win an At Home tote bag. Each of the fifty-two photographs is available for purchase.

A panoramic view of The Glass House, with Weston in the center and At Home hanging on the walls around her.

A panoramic view of The Glass House, with Weston in the center and At Home hanging on the walls around her.

 

The Heather Weston "At Home" tote bag.

The Heather Weston “At Home” tote bag.

 

The "At Home" Instagram challenge.

The “At Home” Instagram challenge.

Weston was unable to finish the list of families she wanted to photograph. “I would’ve had to shoot every day, multiple times a day,” said Weston. “It wasn’t really personal, and most people understood that.”

With At Home completed, Weston is working with a literary agent to make a book of the photographs. She is eager to pursue similar projects in the future with a more individual, candid approach. Her next project will focus on children of separation or divorce who have two bedrooms in two separate homes.

Today, Weston lives in the same 450-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn with her husband and daughter, as she has for the past twelve years. She doesn’t intend to change the way people use or regard space through At Home. “It has been a fun social comment,” said Weston. “People will always do what they do” with their homes. “But I hope they enjoy the flaws.”

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