Photography book documents “30-year portrait” of one American family

When newspaper photojournalist Pam Spaulding set out to photograph a year in the life of a new mother in 1977, little did she know where the project would take her.

Three decades on she was still photographing the McGarveys, a Louisville, Kentucky family that had grown to five, following daily activities and documenting milestones like births, graduations, marriages, and burials. She was chronicling the family’s passage through life.

What became a lifelong passion, perhaps an obsession, for Spaulding has yielded a remarkable archive of photographs that tracks not only the everyday lives of one family, but also the granular details of the changing American way of life.

The only comparable work in the annals of documentary photography is the fascinating 25-year portrait of the four Brown sisters by Nicholas Nixon, says veteran National Geographic photographer Sam Abell. “But those portrait sessions are a once-a-year occurrence. The McGarvey project is of another order, and we are unlikely to see anything like it again.”


Spaulding’s intimate 30-year photographic study of a single middle-class family from Louisville is represented in An American Family: Three Decades with the McGarveys (National Geographic Focal Point; October, 2009; $35).

How did Pam Spaulding link up with the McGarveys, I asked her in an interview. “I called around Lamaze instructors to get the names of first-time parents. That’s how I met John and Judy McGarvey. They were willing to listen to my idea about photographing the life of a new mother for a year. They agreed to a trial period. Then they never got rid of me,” Spaulding said.


David, center, says the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time in kindergarten. Three of his classmates in the picture will stay with him through eighth grade. September 1982 (p. 26)

Photo by Pam Spaulding

What developed was a remarkable relationship, in which the photographer became all but invisible to the McGarveys, even inside their home. Her lens became so familiar it went unnoticed. Years later, when the children looked at the book of photographs of their lives, they remarked that they had not realized that the photographer had been among them on this and that occasion.

“I wanted to make a timeless picture of culture, a vsual history of what we Americans were like in this period of time,” Spaulding said. “Already you can see in these photographs how things we used have changed, such as pay phones that have since started to disappear. Looking at these pictures also gives you a sense of how time changes bodies and relationships, seen when the same people are photographed over many years in the same places.”

Spaulding has children of her own, but she has not documented their lives as she has those of the McGarvey family. “I couldn’t be both an observer and a participant with my own family,” she explained. “The photos I made of my own children were the photos any mother would make. I was looking at the McGarveys differently, from a side and through a wider lens that included the context of place and time.”


Judy dresses Sara for her fourth birthday party, which featured a Cinderella theme including a neighbor playing the fairy godmother. May 1987 (p. 210)

Photo by Pam Spaulding

How did the children react to Spaulding’s omnipresence in their lives, the woman pointing the camera at them even in some awkward moments? “I think they accepted me and liked what I was doing,” the photographer said. “Why wouldn’t they? I was there for them at their ball games and school plays.”

Over the years the McGarveys saw few of the pictures Spaulding made of the family. She once overheard one of the children telling a friend not to be self-conscious about the photographer, who apparently shot many pictures, but never processed any of them. “They were generally pleased when they finally got to see the pictures,” Spaulding said. “Although Morgan couldn’t believe I published one of him sitting on the pot.”


The family welcomes David home from a tour in Iraq. John, who rarely shows emotion, held back tears when the crowd at the airport broke into applause. November 2006 (p. 27)

Photo by Pam Spaulding

As Spaulding blended into the family’s lives she came to know and appreciate their traditions and rituals. The project also changed her photography. “Shooting for a newspaper you want your pictures to be clean, very simple, and covering emotion. You shoot tight pictures. For the McGarveys I constantly had to tell myself to stand back, to shoot a wider scene. It was hard because it was not what I was doing on a daily basis for the newspaper.”

So is the McGarvey project finally over? “No,” Spaulding said. “I was there to photograph the birth of Sara, so how could I not be there to photograph the birth of her first child?”


Pam Spaulding

Photo courtesy of National Geographic Books

National Geographic Books provided a review copy of An American Family: Three Decades with the McGarveys for this entry. 

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More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn