Photographer Catherine Panebianco: ‘These are my family pictures, but they’re every family’s story’

When US photographer Catherine Panebianco was a child, her family moved around North America a lot: by the time she entered high school she had had maybe 10 different homes – “in Pennsylvania, Georgia, a couple places in California, two places in New York…”. One constant, though, was a set of photographic slides. Her father, Glenn, a metallurgical engineer, had taken the pictures when he was a young man in Toronto during the 1950s and 60s. On Christmas Day each year, wherever they were, Glenn would lug out a hulking, prewar metal projector and set up an old slide screen. The family would then gather round, the children in pyjamas with a bag of popcorn, and listen to stories they had heard “a bazillion times”.

“We all rolled our eyes at it, especially when we were younger,” recalls Panebianco, who is now 56. “But, secretly, we enjoyed the idea that it was something we got to do together; it was a tradition we had. We moved a ton, but my dad cared about those slides enough to take them everywhere with him. And even though as younger kids you maybe didn’t quite understand it or appreciate it, you still sat through it. And you did care about it. It’s a memory that stays with you.”

Panebianco, now a photographer living in Jamestown, western New York state, didn’t think much about the slides until 2016. She was at her parents’ house and her mother, Jean, was trying to organise the images. Panebianco saw a slide of Jean, then in her early 20s, reclining in a boat on a lake in Canada, and thought it might work for an Instagram project (the phrase for the day was “from where you stand”). That afternoon, she went down to the nearby Chautauqua Lake: “I held it up, I just thought maybe I’d just put her in the lake, I didn’t really know what I was doing,” says Panebianco. “When I started moving it around, I took a bunch of pictures, I saw the backgrounds lined up. At that point it was just a cool photo, and it was perfect for Instagram for that day.”


Racing Time, from Catherine Panebianco’s photographic series No Memory Is Ever Alone.

Racing Time. Photograph: Catherine Panebianco

Four years on, Panebianco has pretty well completed a project she calls No Memory Is Ever Alone. There are around 30 photographs in the series: each of them takes one of her father’s old slides and relocates it in a modern setting that has personal resonance for Panebianco. There is no digital trickery, only a clever and painstaking matching of backgrounds, light and moods. “I wanted my hand to be in there,” she says. “Initially, it was a mistake: I went down to the lake and it was just easier to hold it up. But it links the series together and, because it’s my past and my present, I wanted those two things to be physically linked.”

Panebianco has had some unexpected reactions to the set, which in September won a Critics’ Choice award from the photography website LensCulture. The most common response has been from people telling her that the images remind them of their own childhood. “These are my family stories, my family pictures, but they’re every family’s story,” she says. “Everybody has the photo of the brother sitting at the Christmas table making faces. Everybody has that uncle that got drunk at a party all the time. It would be a bummer if they just saw my dad in the boat or whatever. But if they remember, ‘Oh that trip I took with my dad…’ I really like that people are feeling that way when they see them.”


Sunday Supper, from the series No Memory Is Ever Alone.

Sunday Supper. Photograph: Catherine Panebianco

Another comment that Panebianco hears is that the photographs have provided an escape from Covid anxiety and the heartache many feel at being separated from their families. “Nostalgia gives you comfort,” she says. “In times of stress or anxiety, there’s something comforting about looking back at the past and thinking: ‘These people made it through, and we’re gonna make it through.’ You might hit some roadblocks along the way, but life does go on.”

For Panebianco, working on the series has brought her closer to her father, who is 82 now and also lives in Jamestown. Having a shared project was especially welcome after her mother died last year. “I’m glad she got to see some of it and she loved them,” says Panebianco. “We didn’t know she was going to pass away, it was fairly sudden, but she’d be really happy that this has given me and my dad a really good connection.”

This Christmas, Panebianco fully expects her father to bring out the slides and the temperamental projector again. “It is still a tradition, but last year we didn’t as it was the first Christmas without my mom and we just couldn’t do it,” she says. “But we will be trying this year.”

The Guardian

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