Photobook Review: "Suburban Dreams" by Beth Yarnelle Edwards

© Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Samantha, California, 2001

Beth Yarnelle Edwards
Suburban Dreams
Essays by Robert Evren and Christoph Tannert
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2011
Hardbound, 56 color images, 11-3/4" x 9-1/2"

Also reviewed on: photo-eye
Additional links: Huffington Post, Lenscratch

Beth Yarnelle Edwards' Suburban Dreams stitches together images from California and five European countries into a single imagined space, presenting colorful suburban portraits in interiors with all parts in their place. The images hover between candid and staged – perhaps reflecting how the world they depict hovers between the two. Her arrangements of rich, saturated color and her palette of light sources unite the various spaces into one world seamlessly.

© Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Niki, California, 2000

Edwards works on creating individual portraits as much as a connective, group portrait, sometimes relying heavily on interior space and objects to portray a sense of the person. The portraits traffic to some degree in contemporary suburban archetypes – the rebellious punk, the Lolita sucking on her candy, the cheerleader, the guy who loves his lawn - but Edwards moves beyond a simple critique of archetypes of privilege, and the images aren't judgmental. She sets out instead to create earnest portraits of affluent people in their home environments, making her work more related to Rania Matar in some ways perhaps than to the social commentary-based work on the suburbs and/or wealth of Bill Owens, Tina Barney, or Larry Fink's Social Graces.

The best portraits, such as the image below of an elderly woman on a bed looking at a second, empty bed in the light of a lamp, not only work with interior space and objects to portray their subject, but equally employ gesture, expression, a sophisticated sense of lighting - in this case warm/cool/white - and a tangible sense of Edwards' connection to the person at the moment of making the image that brings the portrait to a (perceived) heightened psychological revelation. This particular image could easily slide into Doug DuBois' ...All the Days and Nights in that regard.

The best portraits also invoke a sense of narrative that's not completely explained - the woman in this particular portrait seems to look at the bed of someone she's lost - and open potential stories about the person and their life that engage a broader sense of who they are instead of defining them for us more narrowly. Photography frequently works at it's most powerful when it's allowed to imply instead of being asked to declare and the better photographs in the book function this way.

© Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Lorraine, California, 1997

Over the course of the book, the stronger work moves beyond this premise of straight portraits and opens the question of the suburban world as an unsettled psychological space. What seems initially like a book of solid, but conceptually modest portraits begins to play with the word "dream" – the suburban ideal blends and overlaps with the surreal space imagined while sleeping or daydreaming.

The images that open this second sense of "dream" suburban space in the book – such as a woman in a blue-green dress seen from behind staring at a backyard bbq in a disquieting way or the woman in front of a bureau with a key hiding in her hand [see the three images below] – multiply the possible understandings of Edwards' work. This development of a multi-layered look at the suburbs and dreams, however, remains latent and appears to be more of a presence consequential of the work process rather than being cultivated actively based on Edwards' comments on Suburban Dreams in interviews. Regardless, these photographs open intriguing possibilities for the body of work and it is these images that begin to push the stakes of the project.

© Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Rachel I, California, 2005

© Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Cathy, California 1997

© Beth Yarnelle Edwards, Benthe, The Netherlands, 2006