21 Years of a Family

Back in 1991, Zed Nelson took a photograph of his friends with their baby son, and every year since, he has photographed them against the same backdrop using the same lighting. “There are no distractions,” Nelson says. “Only the miracle of growth and the changes of time and age.” (See them all here.)

I actually found these photos surprisingly moving—did you feel the same? Sometimes I tell Alex that when you raise a child, it’s like raising a hundred different children—a needy newborn, a chubby baby, a chatty toddler, an independent child…they feel like separate people, and you want to freeze certain stages before they move on to the next. Sometimes I look back at photos and miss those past stages. I never really experienced nostalgia before having children and now it’s such a daily pang!

P.S. Toby as a newborn, baby, toddler and child.

(Via Kottke)

  1. Nice…thanks for sharing about family photographer, family photos are so beautiful and different. The overall style is absolutely inspiring, Keep posting!

  2. The mom has super great style. Its fun to see how she stays true to her style as ages.

  3. when you raise a child…. like 100 different children… lovely and daunting…

  4. life tip: take lots of videos! I am 25 and over Christmas we FINALLY pulled out the old camera tapes and watched a ton of them- it was so nice to be able to relive special memories like our last Christmas with Grandma, or bringing my newborn baby sister home. My parents kept commenting how tiny our voices were or this cute little thing my brother used to do that they’d forgotten until seeing them on film. photos are great, but you can never have too much home video of your littles :)

  5. It’s so sweet to see the development of a family in this way. Photography and memory affect one another so deeply and it would be interesting to hear the memories this family draws together upon looking back at these photos.


  6. My sister photographed her boys in the same chair from when she could prop them up in it, to when they left for college. It’s a similar kind of comparison to a stable reference point. Your kids are little enough. Your family should start your own version.

  7. These photos just make me want to know more and I want them to keep going…like does the son have a significant other now? Would they add he/she to the photo if they continued it? I also couldn’t help to want to know there thoughts on only having one child (no judgement though…we are one and done so I love hearing others experiences in that regard). So much is left to be seen…

  8. This family (from Argentina, I think) has been taking their photographs since 1976, same day every year. It’s called “The Arrow of Time”

    The project is super interesting, they have even added the families of the sons as they’ve gotten married and had children of their own.

    These photos reminded me of that!

  9. agata, i agree! yet her basic style (big shirt, tomboyish) stays the same throughout. i would love to hear the story of their family life through all these years. the photos are so compelling and leave so many question marks (in a good way)

  10. jenny, haha, i felt like i aged 10 years between newborn and first birthday :)

  11. emmeline, i’d LOVE to!!! i didn’t realize it was out yet. going to track it down now :)

  12. Along these lines, you must see Richard Linklater’s new film BOYHOOD. I saw it recently, and it’s just incredible. Here’s a great NYT piece about it. Although the less you know about the movie going in, the better!

  13. I love art that spans time. It requires so much dedication!

  14. that is truly amazing and I wish I had that idea when my kids were born!! Such a neat visual progression!

  15. I think what’s scary is how much the parents aged between new born and child, of what 10 years or so? Holy crap.

  16. I so agree. I often think that I better get in as many kisses and snuggles as I can before they start pushing me away.

  17. Very beautiful, I don’t feel sad…accully it’s so interesting how the women is changing. did you notice? trying different style, hear , getting blond, black, short etc, I like to see that. I have a feeling I do not change much, only my child is growing…; )Thank for sharing.

  18. These are wonderful!

    I’m not a mother yet, so it’s strange and foreign to me. How interesting to think of missing the different versions of your children

  19. I feel like it shows that parents are people & have lives, too. Often (as kids), we think our parents are only parents. These photos show that parents change along with their children (physical like hair & style but in other ways, too). These are stunning photos. Thanks for posting!

  20. These photos are so cool! I love seeing how their styles change over time. But I see what you mean about being sad. I think that’s because these photographs in particular only capture part of the story, but with no words — it’s hard to put their lives into context when we’re just seeing year one, two, etc.

    However, I lost my mom when I was 15 to cancer, so it makes me indescribably happy to see this family together and whole after so many years.

  21. Oh my, how I feel your words. We were driving out of a parking lot today when, in another car, I saw a mother breastfeeding her little one. I can’t find the words to describe the feeling of nostalgia and sadness and tears in my eyes… I don’t think I’ll have another child (I have 2 boys now, 6 and 3) and as much as I love watching them grow I soo miss having a baby…
    Mothers know…

    This is a little smth I wrote a couple of days ago when my little one turned 3:

  22. What a brilliant, bittersweet series! These photos make me ache. Just gorgeous.

  23. I love reading your blog….today’s article about was one I’m passing on to my daughter.
    I will read an article and text her that she “has to check out Jo” today so she does and it give us a good long conversation :)

    She’s expecting her first baby in November and has gone over your stories of babies in different cultures and definitely takes something with her after reading.

    Keep up the wonderful posts.

    Peggy in NJ

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  25. check out the british children’s book zagazoo. it chronicles exactly what you describe.

  26. this makes we sad in part because by the last picture there is no physical connection between them. Hugs are forever.

  27. This reminds me of photographer Nicholas Nixon’s project “The Brown Sisters” – photos taken every year from 1975 – 2011. Sad? Well the photos are provacative in that it makes you wonder why some are smiling and some are not.

  28. emily, what a sweet and poignant comment xoxo

  29. Wow. You posted this right as I’m experiencing deep nostalgia this week. My baby just turned 1 and I’m weepy over it – already missing his newborn, 3 month, 6 month and so on stages. I’m also weening so I guess it’s a double whammy.

  30. Oh my, Jo, you put words to my feelings. Thank you for saying that. My boys are each one year younger than yours. All I can see now is how short life really is, and how unfair it is that I have such a short time to spend with these guys. The pains of nostalgia as I’m living it, indeed.

  31. I absolutely understand that feeling of nostalagia — in fact, i feel the same way about my sister! She was born when I was 6.5, so I really watched her grow up. (She even nicknamed me ‘Momster’ because I was somewhere between a mom and a sister.) A few months back 8 or 9 year old Olivia visited me in a dream — her hair still dirty blonde and fine, her nose still small and perky, her attitude still sunny and bright. It was so strange and wonderful to see her again! I feel so much closer to her now that we’re 19 and 26, but I do miss that little girl.

  32. Such an intriguing feature. Must have taken a lot of patience to get to the end result. I’ll never forget when my mom and I realized I was finally taller than her!

  33. Great photos! Sometimes I want life to slow down, but time keeps ticking. I can imagine the nostalgia. I don’t have children, but I do experience it.

  34. It’s not sad…it’s rewarding. And it happens gradually, even though it might seems sudden when you are looking at pictures.

    The sad part would be if they didn’t grow and change. You have to go with it, not fight it. My husband’s ex is still very overly involved with her children, who are now 26 and 30. Not healthy, especially for her. Neither of them are in a relationship…I think that will change things.

    Mine are older, and I have grandchildren. Sometimes I do get hit with a wave of sadness when I observe couples with young children…even my own children…but that’s more just the realization that I am in the latter stage of life, while they have all of that ahead of them. Mind you…I don’t really want to be back there with them or with you…but it’s just a nostaligic feeling and probably apprehension about the future…

  35. i agree, michele, sometimes they look happy or upset, and i wonder if it was just the moment he clicked the photo or if it indicates something bigger….it’s such a moving series, more than i would have expected. xo

  36. I don’t think it’s sad. It’s a part of life. They cared for him, watched him grow, & now…here he is as an adult. :] // ☼

  37. I love how sometimes everyone is smiling, sometimes not, sometimes they’re touching and other years they’re farther apart. I can’t help project and wonder if the photos are also capturing moments in their marriage and family dynamic. Doesn’t it also make you happy that they could keep coming together each year?

  38. I agree one hundred percent! My mom use to always say the same thing to me. “I wish I could freeze each stage and still get the next one”. Now as a mom a totally understand this. I miss all my “different” babies!

  39. You blink and it’s all over! I miss the newborn stage, the toddler stage, the stage before they lose their baby teeth…it was all so long ago. You can’t stop this train, so enjoy the ride!

  40. Happy and Sad. If you do a good job-they leave :( But then you hope they choose someone amazing so you get another lovely person added to the family.

  41. It’s going to be a strange day when my daughter is taller than I.