Documentary Family Photography

August 14, 2017

I’m Kevin McGladdery, and I’m a San Francisco Bay Area documentary family photographer. What is documentary family photography, you ask? The short answer is that instead of approaching a session with a family as a portrait photographer, I approach it as a photojournalist. For the slightly longer answer, let’s first take a quick look at what people might more commonly think of when they think of family photography. I’ll call this style of photography “portrait family photography”.

Portrait Family Photography

Portrait of Ulysses Grant and Family

This is a family portrait taken in the early 1880s. You get bonus points if you can identify the famous American at center in the white top hat. Notice that the kids are behaving exactly the same way that your kids behave when you try to take a picture like this. The boy on the left is staring off into the distance, the girl sitting next to him doesn’t exactly look happy, the little girl on the far right refuses to look at the camera, the kid to her left is fighting so hard to get down that there is nothing but a blur where a face should be, and one kid (one!) is looking at the camera and smiling.

I love this photo, precisely because of these kids. You get a glimpse of what each one is like. This photo would lose something if all the kids were perfectly behaved.

Documentary Family Photography

Kids showing their personality as shown above is the reason I’m a documentary family photographer. As much as I like the above photo, it doesn’t really show what their life was like. Contrast it with this next photo, taken from my About Me page. This photo is a great example of documentary family photography:

Grandpa and grandchild taking a nap, an example of documentary family photography

I’m the one sleeping on the ground; my Grandpa is on the couch. I’ve since aged a few decades and moved thousands of miles away from Michigan, where the photo was taken, to the San Francisco Bay Area. Looking at this picture, however, brings me right back there. This is what afternoons at my grandparents’ house felt like.

I have family pictures from my grandparents going back seventy years. A few are posed, with everyone smiling straight at the camera. Most, however, are not. They are photos of everyday life, and those are the ones I love looking at.

You probably take pictures like this yourself. Almost everyone has a smartphone now, and most of them have cameras on the back. You might additionally have a more capable digital camera. So, why hire me?

What’s a Documentary Family Photographer?

In short, when you hire a documentary family photographer, you’re hiring a professional photographer to spend a normal day with your family. That’s what I do. I spend time with families in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. To the kids I’m not so much a photographer as a visiting friend who happens to have a camera. They usually forget about the camera pretty quickly. I spend anywhere from a few hours to an entire day with a single family. During that time, I document whatever I see. I shoot the daily routine. I shoot the things that in the moment may seem unremarkable but will become precious memories in the years to come.

As a professional photographer, my job is to take pictures. Not only do I have the skill and knowledge to turn your everyday life into art, while I’m with you I am not distracted by mopping up messes or paying bills or other necessary household tasks. One of my clients mentioned that one of my favorite images from their session, which consisted of her there children spontaneously cuddled up reading together, happened when she was doing the dishes. Furthermore, when you hire me, the entire family is captured in the images, as opposed to missing the person who is taking the picture.

Three kids reading

Is Documentary Family Photography New?

Nope! Although I’m sure they weren’t the first, the earliest high profile example of this type of photography that I can think of is the Kennedys. Even before J.F.K. became President, Mark Shaw would photograph his family in this photojournalistic style. He continued to photograph them throughout J.F.K.’s presidency. This work was not for the government, but for the Kennedys themselves. This is what documentary family photography is. It’s the visual history of a family, even if for just one day or for one morning.

How Do I Find a Documentary Family Photographer?

Lucky for you, I happen to be a documentary family photographer and I would love to work with you. Although I’m based in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m available anywhere in the United States. You can view some of my work here. Contact me for more details, or if you have any questions.

If you’re interested in looking at the work of other documentary family photographers, the founders and judges at documentaryfamilyawards.com are all amazing photographers. The winners of their contests will certainly be of the highest quality as well.

I hope this helps! I’m a documentary family photographer because I think this is an incredibly genuine way to capture a family. Everyone’s personalities come out during a documentary family photography session. You get to see photographs of kids as they really are. You get to have things that you would otherwise forget captured forever. Do it for yourself, for your kids, and for their kids. You’ll be very glad you did.