The Dinner Table Series
by Simon James
Houston Center for Photography
September 13-October 26, 2002
Many writers have remarked upon the differences and similarities of England and America: one of the best known being that coined by the playwright George Bernard Shaw who famously described England and America as "two countries divided by a common language." In the United Kingdom, of course, notions of Englishness, or things that the average person rarely considers. Because Americans do indeed speak a grossly similar language, we tend to assume they think about things, and values, in a grossly similar manner. And in many cases we couldn't be more wrong.
The United Kingdom, in spite of its ups and downs, has been around in one form or another for close to 2000 years. America by contrast, or at least the United States we recognize today, is a much younger entity. In some ways it might be described as a construct; and America today justly celebrates the achievements of the many thousands of determined men and women that made the perilous journey across the Atlantic and contributed to its construction. People, in many cases persecuted in their homelands, in search of a new beginning and somewhere they could call home. And "home" is useful keyword when looking at "things American."
Americans are indeed very different to those of us who inhabit the "old countries" from which their ancestors are drawn. In the USA this has led to a significant, ongoing and very fruitful genre of photographic practice, as American artists and photographers explore and express their ideas of what it is that makes an American: trying to encapsulate in viewable form a quantifiable notion of "American-ness." For Ansel Adams, the pioneer spirit and strength of natural form were paramount. Modernist photographers, such as Lewis Hine, offered their viewers images of the complexity, strength, mechanization and might of the cities of the Eastern sea board; while Walker Evans concerned himself with notions of what he described as "an American place." Robert Frank, born in Switzerland and emigrating to the USA in the 1950s, was much more concerned with the people, the places they inhabited, the rather different values they upheld, and the ways they expressed their "American-ness."
We might consider the work of William Eggleston, who effectively introduced the notion of color photography as art to this side of the Atlantic. Eggle-ston's epic photo-essay, Election Eve, presented America with an image of the Southern environment at the dawn of the Carter presidency: the first time since the Civil War America trusted the presidency to a gentleman from the South. More recently in the Journal we featured Bill Owens, who in the 1960s looked at suburbia on America's west coast, and Kate Schermerhorn's images of Americas Idea of a Good Time: America determinedly engaged in the leisure it now sees as its God given right. Another artist that should definitely be included in the list is Joel Meyerowitz, whose wooden, 10" x 8" bellows camera recently tried to find sense in the mutilated ruins'of the twin towers of Ground Zero, New York.
Today in the same vein in Massachusetts, a man, working in quiet obscurity for the past 20 years, photographs his family and friends having dinner. Stephen DiRado, featured here, respects the great photographers who have worked in the genre discussed above and will be embarrassed to be considered in the same light. Initially when looking at his work it may not be obvious he is one of them, but the genre splits into two sub-groups: those whose imagery asks the question and those whose photographs go some way towards providing an answer. DiRado fits into category two. While not what would be described as a particularly political animal, he knows exactly what it is that makes an American. Family, home and a spirit of place are the fundamentals upon which DiRado's art is based. He lives in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches at Clarke University, and spends much of his own time on the island of Martha's Vineyard. He works in black and white, mostly in large format although he also uses a Mamiya 7, and wherever he is the wooden 8" x 10" camera isn't far away.
Stephen DiRado's art almost all happens in, or close to, the home: not always his own, but home for all that nonetheless. Not that this means the pictures should be regarded as in the least parochial, for as we see here the expanses of heavens and the Milky Way unfold over familiars to him such as the East Chop Light House, near Edgar Town, or the flimsy cottage in Tisbury, where he and his wife have spent so many weekends and vacations. In the summer he photographs Americans on holiday: diving off the American Legion Memorial Bridge or sitting around in the cottage city, holiday homes now butoriginally built for Methodist revival meetings in the 1840s.
DiRado's work might in some ways be described as "local;" individuals frequently recur within the pictures and their lives are woven into the narratives played out in the Dinner Table pictures. But the individual lives of the figures that so often appear in the images are secondary, and as a result of recent events suddenly almost incidental, to the more "universal" structure of the work as a whole. For as an outsider, resident in London and detached from the immediacy of the United States, it seems to me they have a much greater, and entirely political, message. I keep thinking back to another famouscliche about America's values being based around mom and apple pie. And in the Dinner Table Series, in presenting, and then representing, again the life and growth of a single, ordinary, American family, DiRado, the artist, clearly, concisely, affectionately and unremittingly illuminates the strength of the rock upon which his nation is founded. Begun in 1985, DiRado's Dinner Table pictures started out as an attempt to record, in precise 8" x 10" large format detail, the minutiae of these family occasions.
But the Dinner Table Series isn't "documentary" in the traditional sense. The family members and friends gathered around the tables are "real," as are the dinners; but the characters are positioned by the photographer prior to the pressing of the shutter release. The Dinner Table series, depicting half a generation of meals with family and friends, also charts his life-long walk through the history of fine art painting: researching, reading, understanding the allegories and coming to terms with the way in which painting over the centuries has addressed the challenges of representing the great issues. And over the course of the series the great issues: birth, life, love and death, all take their seat at the dinner table. They telegraph a powerful truth. For, in their examination of the minutiae of this single unassuming family, they become an allegory about America and the real fundamentals of what it means to be American: the pride and the celebrations, the scraps and misunderstandings, the caring, consideration, and confusion, the struggles and sacrifices, the determination, the belief and the trust; the adhesion, growth and triumph of the family unit through thick and thin. And the family moves forward.
SIMON JAMES IS A PHOTOGRAPHER AND WRITER LIVING IN LONDON, ENGLAND.