Family Pictures: Close to Home @ Smithsonian American Art Museum

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There’s inevitably a distance between a photographer and his or her subject. But in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s new exhibition that opened last Friday, Close to Home: Photographers and Their Families, that distance is reduced, as photographers document their own families in their own personal surroundings.

The exhibition features the work of nine contemporary photographers, spanning the past three decades. Portrait depictions range from the close-up, intimate, black-and-whites by Elaine O’Neil to the slightly staged West-Coast-flavored patriarchal shots by Larry Sultan to the richly-colored upscale shots by Tina Barney.

“There’s some comfort in watching someone else at home. Maybe because you might not have that yourself,” Barney said in a 1995 BOMB interview. “It might have to do with an emotional comfort, as opposed to a materialistic comfort.” These words ring true, even today.

But be sure to look closely at the family portraits. Even though one might think the photographer would be able to capture his or her family in their natural habitat, there’s inevitably going to be some artistic license and direction involved.

Photographer Larry Sultan often shot his parents, placing them in settings and directing expressions that they might not have necessarily made on their own. And his father, Irving, wanted to make sure that was known when images–like Dad on the Bed, 1984 (left)–were exhibited. “ ‘Any time you show that picture,’ ” Sultan said his father told him, “ ‘you tell people that’s not me sitting on the bed looking all dressed up and nowhere to go, depressed. That’s you sitting on the bed, and I am happy to help you with the project, but let’s get things straight here.’”

Close to Home: Photographers and Their Families runs from February 4, 2011 to July 24, 2011 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

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