'Close to Home: Photographers and Their Families' at Smithsonian American Art

Virginia Beahan's
Virginia Beahan's "Christina and Gram on Thanksgiving, New Hampshire, 2004" is featured in the "Close to Home" exhibition.
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By Mark Jenkins
Friday, February 4, 2011

Many stories, some of them quite intimate, are told in "Close to Home: Photographers and Their Families,'' which opens today at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. But there's also an overarching narrative: the transformation of fine-art photography.

For many years after color film became the norm for everyday family snapshots, art photographers continued to work in black and white. Only three of the nine photographers represented in this show make black-and-white pictures, however, and only one of them doesn't manipulate the images in some way.

The two earliest pieces, which date to the 1980s, represent the exhibition's dominant aesthetic: Tina Barney's "Marina's Room'' and Larry Sultan's "Dad on the Bed'' are large, crisp and vividly hued. And while the two subjects are generations apart - Marina is a little girl, Dad a retired executive - they live in similarly upscale worlds. No one in this exhibition's 32 photographs poses in his studio apartment or in front of her tumbledown shack.

Some of the artists focus on a particular person. Most of Virginia Beahan's six photographs feature her elderly mother, here just called "Gram,'' who was suffering from senile dementia. These photographs may have been a form of therapy; Beahan says Gram "liked the attention,'' and making these portraits allowed the two of them to achieve a "kind of peace.''

But the artist didn't forsake her own interests when she took on this homebound project. Beahan had been a landscape photographer, and most of the images locate their subjects amid the larger subject of nature. Even the one close-up, "Gram in Black,'' places the woman's face in an open field of color.

Equally personal are Elaine O'Neil's daily photographs of herself with her daughter, "Mother Daughter Posing as Ourselves," made over four years as the girl entered adolescence. These black-and-white works, posed on the fly and with their funky edges unmasked, look sort of old-fashioned in the context of this show - but old-fashioned in a good way. O'Neil's rejection of high-tech ploys gives these 10 dual portraits warmth and immediacy that many of the other pictures lack.

While some of the photographers depict the faces of two or more generations, Muriel Hasbun depicts her forebears through artifacts. Her black-and-white collages tell the complicated tale of her own existence: She was born in El Salvador to a French-Polish Jewish mother and a Palestinian Christian father. No wonder her images have so many layers.

A similar pileup is less evocative in Martina Lopez's "Heirs Come to Pass, 3,'' a collage of anonymous family photos found in secondhand stores. A colorized landscape scattered with figures in archaic dress, the piece is a bit like one of those Hollywood blockbusters where computer-generated effects crowd out humanity.

But then humanity, or at least spontaneity, is not emphasized in "Close to Home.'' The technology may have changed, but art photography still prefers formality and detachment, even when the subject is Mom, Dad or Sis.

weekend@washpost.com Jenkins is a freelance writer.

CLOSE TO HOME: PHOTOGRAPHERS AND THEIR FAMILIES Through July 24 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and F streets NW (Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown). 202-633-1000. www.americanart.si.edu . Hours: Open daily 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Admission: Free.

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