Untitled (50, Chicago). (Yasuhiro Ishimoto/Gift of David W. Williams and Eric Ceputis/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)
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“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, in a news release for the Museum of Fine Arts Boston’s “(Un)expected Families” exhibition.

From staged portraits to snapshots and found photos, documentary and fine art, an array of traditional and alternative family structures question the definition of the American family from the Victorian era to the present.


Lower West Side Revisited: Felix and His Wife, Buffalo, 1992. (Milton Rogovin/Gift of Denise Jarvinen and Pierre Cremieux/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

A Letter From My Father, 1960. (Duane Michals/Sophie M. Friedman Fund/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

James and Mia Agee, 1940s. (Helen Levitt/Gift of Marvin Hoshino/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Hutterite Classroom, Gildford, MT, 2005. (Christopher Churchill/Gift of Elisa Frederickson/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

More than 80 photographs, in black and white and color, explore mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and images of multiple generations of families. The show also addresses the chosen family as well as the born, “whether connected by DNA, shared life experiences, common interests or even a social media network,” as described by the MFA.

The alternative families in the exhibition can be seen as formed by religion, sexual orientation, the experience of war, and social clubs. Christopher Churchill’s series on American faith from the years just after Sept 11, 2001. Louie Palu, while covering the conflict in Afghanistan, produced portraits of U.S. Marines as seen in his 2017 book “Front Towards Enemy,” showing the familial bond that exists in the military. Danny Lyon was a student at the University of Chicago when he first befriended members of the Chicago Outlaws, a notorious motorcycle club. Jess Dugan explores gender issues by photographing friends within the LGBTQ community. In her artist statement, she describes her personal identity as a queer person in relation to her work as “inherently political, and the open portrayal of my body, experiences, and family creates a platform from which I can intimately engage with others.”


Ethel Shariff in Chicago, 1963. (Gordon Parks/Gift of Gus and Arlette Kayafas in honor of Karen E. Haas/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Damon “Commie” Connell, 20, Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan, 2008. (Louie Palu/Museum of Fine Arts Boston purchased with funds donated in honor of Linda and Alex Beavers)

Yazoo City, Miss., 1979. (Nicholas Nixon/Fraenkel Gallery San Francisco/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Pasadena (Lost Persons Area), 1963. (Elliott Erwitt/Gift of Rudolph Demasi/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Mr. and Mrs. Steve Mills (Burlesque Comedians), Pilgrim Theatre, 1973. (Roswell Angier/Polaroid Foundation Purchase Fund reproduced with permission/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Uptown, Chicago, from the portfolio, Danny Lyon, 1979. (Danny Lyon/Gift of Rudolph Demasi/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Misty Dawn and Alisa, Northern California, 1989. (Jock Sturges/Gift of Elizabeth Lea/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

Houston, Texas (Woman and Man With Babies), 1957. (Henri Cartier-Bresson/Gift of Charles T. and Alma A. Isaacs/Museum of Fine Arts Boston)

The exhibition opens Dec. 9 and will be on display until June 17, 2018.

More on In Sight:

Unexpected friendships between animals and their humans

‘I buried my negatives in the ground in order that there should be some record of our tragedy.’ The photographs of Henryk Ross.

Inside a fading Chinese culture ruled by women

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