In the self-portrait, the artist is holding their baby behind a screen door; in their eyes is a look of intense love, and their tender embrace of the child is deeply moving. The 2018 photograph by Jess T. Dugan, titled Self-portrait with Elinor (screen), depicts the typical adoration of a parent for a child, but the image is especially profound because Dugan is gender nonbinary, and their partner is a cisgender woman.
“In my practice, I’ve always fused a classical style of photographing with a very contemporary subject matter,” Dugan says. “And that’s a strategy I use to bring attention to queerness and different kinds of identity when thinking about sexuality.” Dugan’s art is among more than 40 stunning works on view in the new exhibition “Kinship,” now on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery.
The paintings and images in the show embrace new approaches to portraiture, once a genre of art reserved for the wealthy. And these time-defying photographic series and unconventional painted portraits of those near and dear also demonstrate how the notion of family is changing.
“I think there is this accessibility of the camera that makes for this democratization,” says Leslie Ureña, curator of photographs at the museum. “These artists are taking the medium that can at once seem accessible, but they are making fine art projects that can also trace histories through their works.”
The photographer Thomas Holton, whose work has been exhibited at the New York Public Library and China-Lishui International Photography Festival, grew up with a mother who immigrated from China and a white American father. To better understand the Chinese side of his family, he explores the definition of family in his series "The Lams of Ludlow Street." The Lams are a Chinese family of five living in a tiny apartment above a shop in New York City’s Chinatown.
A relationship between Holton and this family has developed over the two decades that the artist has documented them. One photograph depicts the three young children taking a bath together in the cramped apartment, while others show them as young adults watching television or working on their computers.
Over the years, the Lams become comfortable with Holton’s presence and natural before the camera’s lens. He has photographed the three children from childhood through their adolescence and early adulthood as part of the family. He’s ferried them around the city, picking them up during their elementary school days and even driving them to college. Time is a significant factor in this series, which Holton plans to continue working on. Although he now has his own family, he remains close to the Lams, especially the father.
“The meaning of family to me is everything. These are my family now,” he says, “It’s turned into quite a remarkable feeling that I have a connection that I met quite luckily 20 years ago.”
Though the word “kinship” traces back to blood relationships, this exhibition embraces a broadening definition. “So, the idea is really to expand this notion of different types of families. It can be people that we’re related to by blood, or legally, or people we find a connection to,” Urena says.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, who received the MacArthur Fellowship in 2015, found a kindred spirit while producing a photographic essay of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis for Elle magazine.
In 2014, city officials made the decision to switch the town's water supply from a treated source to a non-treated cheaper alternative, exposing the people of Flint to a staggering increase in the amount of lead in their water. An outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease, a severe form of pneumonia, coincided with the water crisis. Today, the water is deemed safe after hundreds of millions of dollars spent repairing the town's infrastructure, but residents continue to mistrust the water supply, with many refusing to drink from the tap.
While covering this crisis, Frazier met Flint resident Shea Cobb, a poet and activist. The two formed a deep bond as Black women with a working-class background and a deep commitment to resisting environmental contamination—Frazier describes the relationship as “kindred spirits in two bodies.”
Her assignment was supposed to last five months, but instead she photographed her subjects for five years, showing how relationships were forged as the community grappled with the emergency. Her photographic series "Flint Is Family In Three Acts" chronicles how kinship can be formed and chosen during a time of crisis and while battling injustice.
“Family doesn’t simply stop at the blood line,” she says, “It expands throughout culture and society as you meet people. As you shoulder situations they’ve gone through. As you have empathy and support for what they’re going through.”
The black-and-white images in this series are observant of how life continues even as environmental disasters infringe on daily activities. Images of the subjects going about their normal routines despite not having basic needs showcase the people of Flint’s incredible endurance.
In one photo, Cobb pours water from a store-bought plastic bottle into her daughter’s mouth, so she can brush her teeth. The image captures the split second when the water flows from the bottle, just before it lands in the young girl’s mouth.
"Flint Is Family In Three Acts," "The Lams of Ludlow Street" and other photographic series in the show demonstrate the many years these photographers have spent with their subjects, chronicling the extent to which they have become kin. “You can track time in a different way through their projects, through the camera and through their photographs,” Urena argues.
Dugan, who was selected in 2015 by the White House as “LGBT Artist Champion of Change,” relies largely on the relationships typically viewed as family—mother, partner, daughter. But Dugan identifies as queer, Dugan’s mother identifies as a lesbian and Dugan has a young daughter with their female partner. Dugan’s portraits feature family by blood and familial ties. But they feel radical because commercial images featuring queer people represented as family have only recently become mainstream.
In the show’s catalog, Dugan states, “The term kinfolk, it reminded me how in queer communities, we use the word family, like, oh, I’m looking for queer family, or she’s family. So, there’s this way of interchanging those words and seeking a sense of familiarity or belonging, even with people you don’t know, or people you aren’t already connected with.”
The pale colors of the photographs in Dugan’s series "Family Pictures" remind the viewer of afternoon. Dugan and their partner lie in bed for a sweet mid-day embrace. Dugan photographs their partner nude in the shower with their baby, assuredly conveying the innocence of the naked body. And Dugan, as an adult, lays their head in their mother’s lap as a child would. These moments, although ordinary, are profound in that they are relatively newly accessible for queer families.
Dugan’s beautiful portraits demonstrate that these ties are deeply natural, in a time when LGBTQ families are still under threat. According to Dugan, this photography is interested in the different kinds of representational identities of queer families and queer parenting that are rarely seen in mainstream media.
Portraiture has experienced a resurgence in the contemporary art world. The fanfare surrounding the National Portrait Gallery’s 2018 commission of the historic Obama portraits not only resulted in beautiful paintings but also highlighted portraiture as a genre of painting that withstands time.
“Kinship” is an iteration of the “Portraiture Now” series, which began in 2006. Before that, from its opening in 1968 until 2000, the museum only collected portraits of subjects who had died. Today, the museum consciously collects contemporary portraits. The future brings with it an opportunity to see how contemporary subjects and portraitists impact the world.
“Kinship,” featuring the works of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Ruth Leonela Buentello, Jess T. Dugan, LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jessica Todd Harper, Thomas Holton, Sedrick Huckaby and Anna Tsouhlarakis, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through January 7, 2024.
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