Museum  November 29, 2017

MFA Boston examines the American Family

Courtesy MFA Boston

Nan Goldin, Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in the bathroom, NYC, 1991. Photograph, Cibachrome print. Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund for Photography. © Nan Goldin.

(un)expected families

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Avenue of the Arts 
465 Huntington Avenue 
Boston, Massachusetts 02115

December 9, 2017 through June 17, 2018

BOSTON (November 21, 2017)—Bringing together more than 80 pictures taken by photographers from the 19th century to today, (un)expected families at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), explores the definition of the American family—from the families we’re born into to the ones we’ve chosen. The photographs in the exhibition, on view from December 9, 2017 through June 17, 2018, depict a wide range of relationships—multiple generations, romantic unions and alternative family structures—whether connected by DNA, shared life experiences, common interests or even a social media network. Encompassing both carefully staged portraits and serendipitous snapshots, the selection of vernacular, documentary and fine art photographs in (un)expected families illustrates that the concept of family has long taken many forms—a subject that has fascinated photographers since the invention of the camera—and challenges visitors to consider what family means to them. Drawn primarily from the MFA’s holdings, the exhibition includes photographs by celebrated artists such as Nan Goldin, Gordon Parks, Nicholas Nixon, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Tina Barney, Emmet Gowin and Bruce Davidson. Loans from private collections include Victorian-era “hidden mother” photographs of children and turn-of-the-century portraits of women in intimate relationships sometimes referred to as “Boston marriages.” Additionally, (un)expected families highlights many New England photographers whose work centers on familial relationships, debuting eight photographs—acquired specifically for the exhibition—by Zoe Perry-Wood, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Amber Tourlentes, Caleb Cole, Tanja Hollander, David Hilliard and Jeannie Simms. An interactive component of (un)expected families invites visitors to share thoughts about their own families on response cards. A selection will be displayed in the gallery on a rotating basis, and all will be archived as part of the permanent exhibition record. Additionally, a free family guide engages children with close looking and drawing activities. The exhibition is generously supported by an anonymous donor.

“Almost as soon as exposure times became short enough to make portraiture feasible, photographers have been drawn to capture likenesses of loved ones. Perhaps that power to freeze a moment in time is what explains why family photographs are so often described as the first thing one would save from a burning building,” said Karen Haas, Lane Curator of Photographs. “I find it particularly fascinating that there seems to be a growing interest among contemporary photographers to focus on families in their work—even as with the rise of smartphones and social media, our own personal pictures are increasingly relegated to the ether, rarely experienced as tangible objects.”

The images presented in (un)expected families span 150 years. Among the oldest pictures are photographs of “hidden mothers” (1860s–70s), depicting infants in the laps of concealed adults—a trick to keep the children still during long sittings or exposures. The mothers or nursemaids were draped with scarves or blankets, or hidden behind furniture or painted backdrops. Similarly, the contemporary photograph Nayla, Ted, Alexandra, Nick, March 30, 1995 (1995) by Cambridge-based Elsa Dorfman (born 1937) focuses solely on the children. While names of the parents are among those handwritten on the bottom of the large-scale Polaroid, only their legs are visible in the composition. Another contemporary photograph juxtaposed with the Victorian-era “hidden mothers,” which were made during a period of high infant mortality rates, is Tammy Hindle (2006) by Nicholas Nixon (born 1947). Part of Nixon’s series documenting a family’s heartbreaking loss of a child, the image shows the mother, Tammy, carrying a portrait of the baby, Claire, to the funeral service, their bodies appearing to magically merge in the reflection within the picture frame.

Father-and-son relationships are explored in images by Dawoud Bey (born 1953), Duane Michals (born 1932) and Jim Goldberg (born 1953), all of which incorporate texts that amplify the moving and often painful stories behind the images, as well as recently acquired photographs by David Hilliard (born 1964) and Arno Rafael Minkkinen (born 1945). Hilliard’s triptych Rock Bottom (2008) is one of an extended series of panoramic photographs that trace the shifting narrative of the gay artist’s complicated relationship with his father. The beautifully choreographed self-portrait visually links the two men, unmistakably related to each other and sporting identical swallow tattoos, across a serene expanse of lake. Minkkinen’s 31-12-86, Self-Portrait with Daniel, Andover (1986), recently gifted to the MFA by the artist, is one of a little-known series of portraits that he took of his son Daniel as the boy grew and matured from infancy to adolescence. The photograph shows Daniel sitting on a bed, bathed in raking light and looking directly at his father’s large-format camera. With his head hidden from view, Minkkinen’s outstretched arms perfectly echo the curve of the headboard and create a haunting embrace that speaks to a parent’s deep-seated desire to encircle and protect a child.

Seventeen photographs representing multiple generations of a family are arranged in a salon-style hang, ranging from intimate depictions of parents with children, such as Baby Toss (2009) by Julie Blackmon (born 1966); to pairs of siblings, such as Twins at WDIA, Memphis (about 1948) by Ernest C. Withers (1922–2007); to a 1925 panorama capturing an extended family reunion encompassing about 200 people. The display also features recently acquired photographs by Sage Sohier (born 1954) and Jeannie Simms (born 1967). Sohier’s Mum in her bathtub, D.C. (2002) is from an extended series devoted to her mother, a former fashion model who had posed for Richard Avedon and Irving Penn in the 1940s. Simms’ Arnie, Susan & Elijah, Jamaica Plain, MA (2015) is from a series documenting the lives of couples married in Cambridge after Massachusetts became the first U.S. state to issue same-sex marriage licenses on May 17, 2004.

Recently acquired works by Amber Tourlentes (born 1970), Zoe Perry-Wood (born 1959) and Jess Dugan (born 1986) also document the experience of LGBTQ couples, families and individuals. Tourlentes has regularly made LGBTQ family portraits on the Town Hall stage in Provincetown, Massachusetts, during its annual Family Week, sometimes revisiting the same subjects over the course of several years. Perry-Wood has spent the last decade photographing another annual event, the Boston Alliance of Gay and Lesbian Youth (BAGLY) Prom, which offers a safe and celebratory occasion for young couples—an alternative to more traditional high-school proms. Allowing her subjects to pose in front of the camera in a studio-like setting, as seen in José and Luis (2015), Perry-Wood helps to give them a sense of personal agency and collective pride at a pivotal moment in their lives. Unlike Tourlentes and Perry-Wood, Dugan photographs her subjects—friends within the LGBTQ community—in natural light and the privacy of their own living spaces, exploring issues of gender, identity and social connection through large-format portraits such as Devotion, from the series Every Breath We Drew (2012).

With the invention of the small and affordable Kodak camera in the late 19th century, followed by the instant camera in the 1940s, many Americans no longer felt the need to visit formal portrait studios in order to record their personal lives. Among the casual snapshots featured in (un)expected families are Polaroids of Caroline Kennedy and her cousin Tina Radziwill, taken by Andy Warhol (1928–1987) in the summer of 1972 and exhibited at the MFA for the first time. The artist—along with filmmaker Jonas Mekas and photographer Peter Beard—was hired by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to teach the children filmmaking and photography. Also on view are an album of photographs commemorating a fraternity at Baker University in Kansas (1910s) and six snapshots depicting “Boston marriages” (1920s–30s)—a turn-of-the-century term used to describe two women living together without the support of a man—romantic relationships in some cases and simply platonic partnerships in others.

Several groupings in the exhibition are centered on places of family life. Working roughly 50 years apart, one on New York’s Lower East Side and the other in Harlem, Lewis Hine (1874–1940) and Bruce Davidson (born 1933) both found the kitchen table an ideal site for their documentary photographs of tenement families in New York City. The groundbreaking Kitchen Table series (1990) by Carrie Mae Weems (born 1953)—featuring the photographer herself as the central figure, alongside lovers, children and friends—speaks to all those who have loved, quarreled and come together around a communal table. Similarly, Tina Barney (born 1945) often acts as both guide and participant in her photographs—including Thanksgiving (1992)—which portray complex family moments in the wealthy East Coast social scene that she grew up in. In another selection of photographs by Julie Mack (born 1982), Mary Ellen Mark (1940–2015) and Dorothea Lange (1895–1965), the car is shown as a setting for a contemporary family self-portrait, a shelter for a homeless family in Los Angeles, and a vehicle for escape for migrant farm workers and their families during the Dust Bowl.

Alongside biologically related families and romantic unions, the exhibition highlights bonds among close-knit communities—“chosen families”—often documented by photographers embedded within the groups. Louie Palu (born 1968) spent several years covering the conflict in Afghanistan, producing portraits of U.S. Marines that capture the terrible toll of war etched on their faces and reflected in their eyes. Danny Lyon (born 1942) was a student at the University of Chicago when he first befriended members of the Chicago Outlaws, a notorious motorcycle club. For a number of years, he documented the individual gang members, their families and friends, as well as races, meetings, social gatherings, rides throughout the Midwest and even their funerals. Nan Goldin (born 1953) uses her camera as a form of diary to record the lives of friends, whom she considers a surrogate family. In Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in the bathroom, NYC (1991), Goldin represents two drag queens in New York City’s East Village, working in her characteristically direct, snapshot-like style. For the artist, who has lost many in her circle to HIV-AIDS, such images form tangible records of powerful human connections in fragile times.

Ethel Shariff in Chicago (1963) by Gordon Parks (1912–2006) and Hutterite Classroom, Gilford, MT (2005) by Christopher Churchill (born 1977) are among the photographs depicting religious communities. Ethel Shariff, the eldest daughter of longtime Nation of Islam head Elijah Mohammed, stands at the apex of Parks’ group portrait, surrounded by fellow members of the organization’s women’s corps. Churchill’s photograph is from a series of pictures on the theme of American faith—a project he undertook in the years just after 9/11. Traveling across the country, he visited various sacred landscapes, places of worship and religious communities including the Hutterites, a branch of the Anabaptists who trace their beginnings back to the Protestant Reformation. For Churchill, the series became an exploration into the very basic human need to be connected to something greater than ourselves. Similarly, Tanja Hollander (born 1972) traveled all over the world—across the U.S. and Europe, but also as far away as Kuala Lumpur and New Zealand—for five years, tracking down all of her hundreds of Facebook friends and making portraits of them set in their own homes. Shot with an iPhone or a simple point-and-shoot camera, these intimate pictures—two of which were acquired for the exhibition—present a fascinating commentary on the role of social media and interpersonal relationships in the 21st century.

Additional highlights of (un)expected families include photographs in a variety of formats. Caleb Cole (born 1981) is a local photographer particularly fascinated by the dynamics of family photographs found at estate sales and flea markets in which one of the subjects—in contrast to the rest of the smiling faces—appears especially sad or downcast. Cole digitally alters these vernacular images to isolate the single, lonely figure, all the while maintaining the shapes of the remaining sitters so that the “odd one out” is set off against the blank, white expanse of the group. In The Big Sister (2012), a recent acquisition, a young girl whose parents have just introduced her to a new baby looks dejectedly off into space as if desperately wishing she could return to her former status as an only child. Digital projections from the series To Majority Minority (2014–15) by Annu Palakunnathu Matthew (born 1964) are also based on found snapshots, sourced from photo albums of immigrant families that have come to the U.S. from all over the world. Working with the owners of these albums, Matthew digitizes the images and then recreates the figures and their poses using contemporary family members in place of the original sitters. By presenting them as projections that seamlessly flow from one generation into another, the artist measures the passage of time through the faces of subsequent generations, and the accompanying texts tell stories inspired by the treasured photographs of their ancestors.

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