Love it or hate it, suburbia is an omnipresent facet of American society and culture. San Francisco photographer Beth Yarnelle Edwards can’t quite turn her back on it.
Edwards’ “Suburban Dreams,” on view at the Oakland Museum of California through June 30, features some 22 large-format photographs mostly shot in Silicon Valley.
She gives suburbia a mythical edge, at the same time observing commonplace, contemporary ideals and aspirations.
“I am a child of the suburbs, of people who wanted to trade snow for swimming pools,” Edwards says. “It is an environment I know intimately.”
Edwards got the photography bug in her early 40s after taking a course at a community college.
Inspired by film and fine art, Edwards cites photographer Jeff Wall as an influence. Wall and Gregory Crewdson (whose images are reminiscent of David Lynch’s work) create large-format, staged photographs. Although Edwards’ photos in “Suburban Dreams” also are staged, they don’t lack authenticity.
Just about any American family could plant themselves in these photos: teens and preteens with toy-laden bedrooms and posters on the wall; a family playing baseball in the driveway; a couple reading to their child in their bathrobes; women primping, bathing and Windexing.
In seeking out these images, Edwards says she is a “stalker of the real.” She photographs real people in their homes and strives to replicate actual moments. She interviews her subjects prior to a shoot, and considers the process collaborative.
The 2001 photo “Kati” was the result of a dare. According to Edwards, Kati said, “I bet you couldn’t make a picture in my house.”
As a result of a toxic incident, a hazardous materials crew threw away a lot of her household inventory, from clothes to furniture. Edwards captures Kati sitting in a living room swathed in plastic sheeting, with a mask over her mouth and knitting. It’s an archetypal act of domesticity made defiant.
Perhaps the most compelling image is “Niki” from 2000, which captures the perennial subject of female adornment. A young girl in a tank top with crimped hair faces the viewer. Her visage is classical, like an Italian madonna. Her sisters primp behind her. One gazes at herself in the mirror, the other leans forward, painting her toenails. Edwards likes these poses because of inherent visual references to Renoir’s bathers and Degas’ dancers.