Beginning in 1979 with a chance meeting outside a ramshackle house not far from Athens, Georgia, and continuing in a series of visits over the next 20 years, Vaughn Sills photographed a large, appealingly complicated, and financially precarious family named the Tooles. Like the Alabama tenant farmers who became the subjects of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the Tooles are at once emblematic and elusive; the more we see of them, the less we truly understand. But Sills hasn’t used her pictures to buttress a sociological treatise. Instead, she’s edited down hundreds of images into a sympathetic and sustained group portrait that’s now a book (One Family, University of Georgia Press, $29.95) and a show (Viridian, 24 West 57th Street, through June 9).
The bond Sills formed with the Tooles over the years was cemented by her regular gifts of Polaroids (she printed from the negatives) but grounded in her absorbed attention to the vicissitudes of their lives. In the third year of the project, Sills began recording increasingly candid discussions of the family’s history and its members’ dreams and frustrations. Transcriptions of these conversations—supplemented by daughter Tina’s alternately feisty and melancholy poems—have become the book’s core text.
But passionate, virtually uncritical empathy only goes so far, and none of this would be worth discussing were it not for the aching soulfulness and down-home grit of Sills’s photos. Taken in and around various peeling clapboard houses, the details of which are effortlessly Evans-esque, these include a number of terrific front-porch tableaux as well as individual portraits. Having watched the youngest of the seven Toole children grow up, Sills is especially tender with them, and they reward her with a sweet transparency that can be heartbreaking. But Lois, the tough and troubled clan matriarch, is a riveting presence throughout (diagnosed a manic-depressive, she died at 64 in 1999), her wariness alternating with an amused acceptance of both her disheveled self and the persistent camera. Not surprisingly, the Toole women take center stage in One Family‘s drama, but once you see Sills’s pictures of them you’ll understand why they deserve to steal the show.