(un)expected families at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Julie Blackmon, Baby Toss, 2009. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Family” is one of the most elastic words in the English language. Coleridge wrote about “the family of fame.” Steichen exhibited The Family of Man (a title that would be deemed sexist today). The Mafia calls itself The Family, and mathematicians recognize “a family of equations.”

On view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through June 17, this exhibition of 80-plus photographs covering 150 years expands the term still farther. It includes a photo album from a Kappa Sigma fraternity from the 1910s, a Hutterite classroom by Christopher Churchill (2005), and Tanja Hollander’s worldwide pursuit of her Facebook friends (2011-2017). There are some surprises: tintypes of “hidden mothers” (1860s-‘70s) – babies sitting in chairs for long exposures while a steadying arm darts in from the frame or a lumpy woolen hill behind the chair hides the mother beneath a blanket. Another surprise: anonymous portraits (1920s-‘30s) of female couples living together, several openly embracing. The accompanying text suggests that the availability of small, affordable cameras made it possible for women to control their private images.

In addition to several outstanding, idiosyncratic pictures of conventional families by David Hilliard, Sally Mann, Abelardo Morell, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, and others, there are many recent photographs of LGBTQ partners, from Diane Arbus’s picture of a tender moment between drag queens to Amber Tourlentes’s 2002-2006 series, 42 pictures of same-sex couples, with or without children, on stage in standard happy-couple poses at an LGBTQ family event in Provincetown, Massachusetts. These images illustrate the impact social change has had on the makers and subjects of images, as do Annu Palakunnathu Matthew’s photographs. In To Majority Minority, Matthew writes American immigrant generational history (at this vexed moment in time) by posing descendants exactly as their immigrant forebears posed and projecting the images so that figures slowly appear and fade away.

Anonymous, Untitled (Hidden Mother), ca. 1860s-70s. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Photography affects and is affected by its time. Throughout most of the 19th century, portraits dominated, largely because of the rising bourgeoisie, but nascent globalization was also bolstered by copious pictures of faraway places.

Carefully read, photographs also shed light on what society values. One telling arrangement of three photographs spotlights the significance of cars in American families’ lives: Dorothea Lange’s 1936 FSA picture of a migrant family by its broken-down car and Mary Ellen Mark’s 1987 photograph of a homeless family forced to sleep in their car bracket Julie Mack’s 2007 large family self-portrait in their SUV. What will iPhone albums say about us?