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“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”
– George Burns
“I get by with a little help from my friends”
– The Beatles
In my experience, there is nothing that inspires more profound joy and more intense anxiety than family. So, it is not at all surprising that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s expansive new exhibit (un)expected families provokes powerful emotions as it traces the way photographers have held a mirror up to America’s most adaptable, revised and remarkably robust institution, the family. An exciting selection of renowned photographers, including many from New England, comprise an incisive and moving survey, on view through June 17th, 2018. On Sunday, January 21st, 2018 from 2:00 – 3:00pm, Karen Haas, Curator of the Lane Collection and this exhibit, will lead a gallery talk that is free with admission to the museum.
The idea of family has evolved pretty radically since the first portrait photographers started documenting nuclear families in the mid-1800’s. Although the fashionable “hidden mother” portrait from the 1860’s and the 1995 family portrait by Cambridge photographer Elsa Dorfman both focus on children to the exclusion of their parents’ faces, that early formality has been replaced by a relaxed casualness and more overt signs of emotional attachment. Another major change is that more and more, we define family to include those with whom we feel an intimate bond, in addition to (or sometimes even instead of) those to whom we are related genetically. (un)expected families follows these changing attitudes and appearances with various groupings that highlight our most meaningful family influences, from immigration and religion to our favorite gathering places, like kitchens and cars.
The clear, continuous thread running throughout the diverse allegiances, affiliations and settings depicted in (un)expected families is the primacy of the emotional bond. Whether a Muslim sisterhood in Chicago, a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan, drag queens in NYC or a couple of California teenage sisters, connectedness reigns. In capturing expressive bonds like romantic love, parental love, even sibling rivalry, these photographers testify to the basic human need for connection. The MFA, Boston has capitalized on its rich photographic archives, creating an exhibit that is at once enlightening, challenging, poignant, and funny to make a fine point: we crave a sense of family.
(un)expected families invites viewers to consider traditional and alternative interpretations of family, an institution that has proven its endurance in the face of extraordinary change from the 1800’s to today. Whether viewing Dawoud Bey’s affecting portrait and testimonial of a black teenage boy longing for a relationship with his lost father, Boston photographer Sage Sohier’s nuanced portrait of her glamorous mother, or Julie Blackmon’s satirical take on raising baby, this exhibit has a pulsing heart and it is all about connections. The range of photographs on view challenge us to empathize with the diverse ways people express our common desire for a family. Are we there yet?
For more information about this exhibit, go to: http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/unexpected-families
For information about the gallery talk with curator Karen Haas, go to: http://www.mfa.org/programs/gallery-activities-and-tours/unexpected-families
Feature Image: Self-portrait with family in SUV, Michigan, 2007 Julie Mack (American, born in 1982) Photograph, chromogenic print, James N. Krebs Purchase Fund for 21st Century Photography © Julie Mack. Courtesy Laurence Miller Gallery, New York. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.