The family dinner has a special place in American culture. And while what is defined as “American” has changed since the sentimental visions of Norman Rockwell, so have the trappings of a typical family meal.
Photographer Lois Bielefeld explores contemporary US dinnertime rituals in her series “Weeknight Dinners.” Bielefeld focused on daily normalcy and eschewed the celebratory mood of weekends, holidays and birthday meals. Shooting across the US in Texas, Wisconsin, Mississippi and Louisiana, she was able to capture a broad sample of family make-ups and situations. The family picnicking indoors on a blanket in front of the television. The seven seated in an ornate dining room. The mother and children eating take-out. Many Americans eating alone.
The style of the pictures is stark, Bielefeld’s gaze unsentimental. “I am interested in anthropology,” Bielefeld wrote via email, “not in a traditional or academic sense but rather in a very unscientific fieldwork way through observing, photographing, and informally interviewing people.”
Her photos are less concerned with food than with how people organize themselves in the privacy of their own homes; each frame is dominated by the people and their surroundings. When left to their own devices, how do Americans make themselves comfortable? Are their meals lavishly thought out? Humbly improvised? Are they eating under a glass chandelier or in front of their computers?
“Photographically I am looking for the photograph to be both a portrait about the person but also their space,” she said.
Some data suggest the continuing stability of the family dinner in one form or another: A 2013 Gallup study found that families are basically just as likely to stay home and eat dinner as a family than than they were decades ago. And according to a 2014 Pew Survey, 88 percent of Americans disapprove of cell phone use at the family dinner table.
But recent data from the Bureau of Labor statistics also show that in later years, US adults are far more likely to eat by themselves than when they were children, or when they raising their own children.
“My family always ate together for the evening meal and we had to ask to be excused to leave the table,” Bielefeld said when asked about her inspiration for the series. But she adds: “I have very little memory of the time we spent at the table and the conversations. I wonder if through this project, a small element in me is chasing the void of my own childhood family mealtimes.”