Family Photography Trends 2013: From Wiseguys to The Waltons

Monty Rakusen / Image Source RF

Monty Rakusen / Image Source RF

Family imagery in 2013 feels less idealized and more like the rough and tumble of the everyday

In 2011, CNN MONEY research discovered 75% of people they surveyed said “spending time with family was more important than ever” a figure that had risen from 69% over 3 years. So the question is: what about the careerist, selfish, puppy-hating 25%?

Seriously, images of the Family push our emotional buttons – love, hate, joy, sorrow, annoyance – and it’s why images of Family directly tick off advertising concepts that work across a wide spectrum of markets: Security; Trust; Loyalty; Connection; Growth; Legacy; Future – to name just a half-a-dozen.

The image of Family in advertising has been evolving fast, partly to sync with how we actually live and partly as an echo of images of Family in popular culture. Tony Soprano in The Sopranos is just the most recent of characters showing how the model of the wise, male, patriarchal figure was no longer wholly credible and out of sync with how we live. And strangely, since the credit crunch, if we are looking to pop culture families as a mirror of life, it’s a much older TV Family that we need to take a closer look at – The Waltons, a poor white Virginia family, different generations sharing space, its make-and-mend ethic and its sense of modesty entirely at odds with the aspirational bravado of the ‘family business’ that The Sopranos represented during the recent Boom years.

It’s no surprise then that whatever the product, CNN Money’s “Spending Time With Family” answer is a popular kind of sub-text to Family imagery, especially with technology companies who turn practical fact of “connection” into an emotional benefit. Take for example Microsoft’s “It’s A Great Time To Be A Family” campaign, combining classic images and moments of domesticity with new technology.

What’s interesting about the Microsoft ad is the generational interaction, Mom and Dad are out of the picture and it’s about cross-generational ‘trust’. This interaction between grandchildren and grandparents (the family recipe is a touchstone for tradition in ads, TV and movies) highlights a topical concern discovered by research. An Allianz Insurance survey from 2012 showed that more important than money, “77% of both boomers [age 47-66]and elders [age 72+]citing the importance of family values and life lessons as the most important part of legacy.” This connection of family with legacy also locks into ideas around Sustainability.

Back in the 1990s, George H.W. Bush suggested that “America needs to be a lot more like The Waltons and a lot less like The Simpsons.” Well, in aftermath of the Credit Crunch modern families have become a lot more like The Waltons, both in terms of their greater reliance on family and in terms of composition with the emergence of the “Sandwich Generation” Baby Boomers who take care of their children returning home because of the economy, and taking care of their ageing parents. The Jan 2013 Research Report: End of Empty Nest by Oregon State University, says “The empty nest of past generations, in which the kids are grown up and middle-aged adults have more time to themselves, has been replaced in the United States by a nest that’s full – kids who can’t leave, can’t find a job and ageing parents who need more help than ever before.” So what does this new extended Family look like? Well advertisers haven’t yet really explored what this new Waltons family looks like, but let’s suggest it may be a more low key version of this recent Mariano Vivanco shoot for Dolce and Gabbana.

Mariano Vivanco for Dolce and Gabbana

Mariano Vivanco for Dolce and Gabbana

Ignore the Fashion drama-queening where it seems they’re dressed for a funeral but are stylishly happy, and look at the blend of age groups. Family in this picture is not just about “Time”, it’s also about the “Rich” and “Diverse” experience of life that Family offers. IKEA have a more more playful spin, seeing this family through the eyes of a child.

This is especially effective and photographers should take note – when thinking around Family it’s worth playing with different perspectives, imagining a scene through different eyes.

Perspective is also what this incredibly sweet, award-winning, inter-generatonal ad for Guggenheim Security Benefits offers. Sometimes just stripping everything back to the visual core enables the image-maker (and the audience) to focus on the emotional essence.

Shown during the commercial break for the 2012 Billboard Music Awards, ads like these really get inside family life – it’s a little bit of ‘documentary’ giving us a glimpse of how the pleasure of Family is about being able to make it up as you go along. In 2013 the Family portrait can afford to be a little looser, because in truth that’s how we are. Renault were perhaps one of the first to pick up on the fact that Family is always unexpected with their Modern Times series of ads from a few years back.

And the squirming embarrassment allied with the slow-burn punchline of the Mom in this iteration.

It connects because as anyone who watched The Waltons knows, the generosity of Family never fails to surprise. If the Twingo flagged up a different relationship between the generations in the credit crunch era, the image of diversity is fast entering centre stage by the dramatically quick shift in laws and social attitudes to Gay marriage – a shift advertisers have been very quick to slipstream. Nursery brand Mamas and Papas released a series of ads that  celebrates diversity as a feature of Family.

From Mama and Papas website How We Roll

From Mama and Papas website How We Roll

A Lesbian couple, a single Mom,

From Mama and Papas website How We Roll

From Mama and Papas website How We Roll

to Gay Dads.

From Mama and Papas website How We Roll

From Mama and Papas website How We Roll

With a restricted colour palette and low lighting these images make the eye seek out all the texture in the image. IKEA have also looked to appeal to this demographic. GAY: GIOVANARDI, SPOT IKEA OFFENDE LA COSTITUZIONE

And J.C. Penney.


For photographers, the point is not that we have been shooting Heterosexual Family and need to switch fast to shooting Gay Family. The point is that the public at large are getting used to seeing more diverse kinds of Family portraiture which reflects the emotional bumpiness of Family life. It’s also why both Presidential candidates felt the need to declare that Modern Family was their favourite TV series: multi-generational, mixed-ethnicities, homosexual couple whose arguments, competitiveness and keeping relationships on the road are the comedy of Family life.

The visual appeal of Modern Family is that the different make-up of this Family serves to highlight the familiar, and traditional rituals of Family life such as “celebrations”, “weddings”, “group-outings” (among the visual elements we featured in our members’ Image Source Family Briefing)

And its why visually, the most impactful kind of Family photographs are partly haunted by memories of our own and memory mixed with images from Advertising, TV and Cinema – Family imagery always carries an element of nostalgia. Witness the famous Carousel/Slide Show scene from Mad Men.

Anyone who doubts the uncanny emotional power of the Family photograph should take a look at Dear Photograph. The site’s popularity among readers and contributors is a testament to how spellbinding Family photography can be with its combination of backstory, shared moments and innocence.

From Dear Photograph blog.

From Dear Photograph blog.

Capturing that sense of innocence in the group photo is a challenge but entirely feasible (Image Source members see the Family Brief ). In the image of the brothers and sisters above, it’s about leaving visual detail that doesn’t suggest a perfect reproduction – the bike in the background; the toddler holding the lead which makes storytelling sense but is also removed from the group; the kid aiming the bow and arrow at the camera. The kind of imagery we see in social media.

In the coming weeks we will be exploring in more detail the visual elements of the Family photo, taking a look at some classic templates and getting exclusive insight from researchers.

In the meantime, note that Family imagery doesn’t have to include people and can be suggested in various ways (more on this later) not least the classic image of security – the Family home.


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