Peering into the Past: “Family Portrait” at the PMA

Perhaps it was some latent homesickness for my own family rising to the surface, or maybe I was just seeking a different visual experience from the kinds of art I had been seeing recently, but when I was looking online for something to see at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, “Family Portrait” caught my eye.

The show juxtaposes photographs of families from as early as the 1800s to as recently as 2009, weaving together vivid portraits of all kinds of families both real and fictionalized. The photographs display a range of techniques: photographs both small and large, in black and white, in glossy color and in faded sepia-tinted silver prints. Each work addresses the ideas and the psychology of families and of being a part of a family in different ways. The gazes, postures and body languages of the subjects spell out a unique and poetic story about how each person fits into their family and how each individual story plays off one another to form a cohesive whole.

As I considered how all of the works I saw inform and play off one another, I began thinking about what kind of artwork is created when a photographer chooses to depict their own family members, versus what kind of baggage a photographer can bring to a family not their own.  How much of the photographer’s own psyche is visible in a photograph, and how much of what we see, rendered in such a lifelike way, is staged, and what if, anything, is spontaneous and real?  Photography provokes this kind of debate more than any other art form.

A work that made me consider the relationships of not only the subjects, but between the photographer and subjects, was “The Daughters” by Tina Barney, dating from 2002-4.  A large, vivid color photograph, it depicts a family of five (mother, father, three young daughters) in a lavish interior.  The variety of emotions and the keen psychology of the family members in this photograph blew me away, reminding me of John Singer Sargent’s masterpiece “The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit” (1882).  The allusion is surely intentional.  In this photograph, the mother and daughter stand at the foreground. The mother gazes upon her little girl, who seems apprehensive at her surroundings, her face tremulous and reactive.  She holds her mother’s hand for support and seems to shrink away from us, from the photographer, her gaze looking to our right.   In contrast, the daughter in the middle ground holds our gaze, her hands folded delicately. She is clearly posing for our benefit, while her mother and little sister appear to be caught in a fleeting moment.  In the background, slightly blurred, stand the father and oldest sister, who looks down at the ground, hunching her shoulders slightly. Her apparent discomfort with this situation echoes her youngest sister’s, but manifests itself passively.  She stands by her father’s side, refusing to engage with her family members, with the photographer, or with us, the audience.

The startling jumble of emotions radiating from this work made me wonder how much of what I was seeing was of the family itself, and how much of it was posed or staged by the photographer?  How much was I reading into this family’s body language, and how much of it was something the photographer purposefully wanted me to see?

A truly haunting work by Diane Arbus titled “Identical Twins, Roselle, New Jersey, 1967” also addresses this theme of potential voyeurism and the perceived discomfort of the subject. The twin girls depicted in this black and white photograph have identical faces and are dressed the same.  On the surface, their identical features bear identical expressions.  Yet as the viewer looks closer, it is easy to see the girls’ vastly different reactions to being photographed.  The twin on the left looks grim, her mouth set in a tight line, while her sister’s mouth is forced into a smile, her eyes large and frightened-looking.  Twins are a strange, fascinating subject for photography because the experience of twin-hood, especially identical twin-hood, creates stunning contrasts in minute details about each twin that allow them to be distinguished.  Who are these girls? How does their twin-hood affect their posting for this photograph?  Again, am I only seeing what the photographer wants me to see, or could it be that I am seeing the young girls’ suppressed emotions?  What many of these works seem to depict is the ambivalent feelings many of the subjects have concerning being portrayed.  Is the photographer necessarily a voyeur?

One last highlight are three glossy black and white photographs in the back of the room from Carrie Mae Weem’s “Kitchen Table Series”, dating from 1990.  According to the blurb, these large, evocative photos are part of a fictionalized series about the life of a successful woman.  In these theatrical works, a woman and her husband are arranged around the kitchen table.  While her husband remains seated, looking down at a newspaper in all three photographs, the wife moved about the space.  In the first photograph, the air is thick with tension and unsaid words as a cigarette smolders in her hand.  In the second photograph, the wife is standing behind the husband, obscured in shadow.  In the third photograph, she is embracing her husband’s seated form.  While she has occupied different spaces over the course of this photo-story, her husband has barely moved.  What has transpired in this fictional relationship and story?  How is the wife’s success affecting her relationship with her husband, who appears less successful?

This powerful last set of photographs invites more questions than answers.  If this fictionalized photo-essay can evoke such powerful feelings and such a potent reaction to a staged set of interactions, how can should we view photographs that depict real life?  If we cannot distinguish the real psychology from the staged psychology of a work, how can we hope to read into a work of art?

“Family Portrait” runs through November 10.

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