Questioning the definition of the American family, through 150 years of photography

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.

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.”

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

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