The MFA’s (Un)expected Families Exhibit Puts a Twist on Classic Family Portraits

The new exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts reinvents ordinary family snapshots, from Thanksgiving dinner to high school portraits.

Jimmy Paulette and Tabboo! in the bathroom, NYC, 1991, Nan Goldin. Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Fund for Photography. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The MFA’s (un)expected families exhibit opens this Saturday, exploring the different definitions of family across multiple generations, romantic relationships, and unique family structures.

From antique, formal portraits to everyday Kodak moments, the show displays more than 80 photographs ranging from the 19th century to today. The exhibit is mostly drawn from the museum’s pre-existing collection, but emphasizes local artists.

“People will be struck by the variety of what we’re showing because certainly we can’t even dream of representing everyone’s family,” says Karen Haas, the curator of this exhibit. “We’re hoping that people will find a glimmer of something that feels very familiar.”

Haas wants to broaden the meaning of family and tap into the universal feeling of “belonging to something larger than ourselves.” Haas arranged and juxtaposed photographs to contrast those feelings, by organizing things like placing Tina Barney’s photograph of a classic Thanksgiving family dinner next to Carrie Mae Weems’s dimly lit, mysterious self-portraits.

Migrant Family, Texas, 1936, Dorothea Lange. Sophie M. Friedman Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Haas mentioned Caleb Cole, a Boston-based photographer, as one of her favorites in the exhibit. Cole finds old photographs at antique stores or garage sales and digitally alters them to isolate a single person who doesn’t seem to fit within a larger group. Through this, Cole aims to highlight the “Odd One Out,” also the name of his collection.

“I select images of people who, unlike the rest of the smiling faces in the frame, bear looks of loneliness and longing that stop me in my tracks,” says Cole. “I don’t have a favorite—they’re all special and interesting to me in their own ways.”

The exhibit also displays Dawoud Bey’s portrait series of high school students, many from the prestigious Phillips Academy in Andover. The simple, straightforward headshots paired with a quote from the subject highlight the power of physical stereotypes.

“I remember the day I first saw this picture in another museum and was just knocked out by it,” says Haas. “I’m so excited to show it in the context of this show, because it is such an interesting commentary on the power of family and its impact on who we are and what we become.”

Self-portrait with family in SUV, Michigan, 2007, Julie Mack. James N. Krebs Purchase Fund for 21st Century Photography. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

With the rise of new consumer cameras came a rise of empowerment for many couples. Many women in “Boston marriages,”  a term for lesbian couples or platonic female friends, utilized their own cameras to take everyday photographs of themselves kissing and embracing. These relationships, often hidden from society, would have never been displayed in a formal studio portrait session, but are now part of the MFA’s exhibit. By owning their own cameras, these women had the “personal agency to represent themselves and document relationships that otherwise might not have been so public,” says Haas.

Haas also brought up Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s photos, which mesh together old portraits with modern reenactments, as an important symbol of immigrant family life. Matthew directs family members to reenact old photos from their ancestors’ country. In a short video, Matthew gradually fades the old into the new, to highlight how immigrant stories and experiences are handed down from generation to generation.

The collection covers the “tension, love, arguments, and the highs and the lows of any family,” says Haas. “There’s hardly anything more powerful in people’s lives that these relationships. They are incredibly important to so many people.”

December 9 through June 17, 2018. Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston,