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CNN Admin’s Pick: The evolution of the American family

A new exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts shows how the broad concept of ‘family’ in America has evolved in the last 150 years.

Eighty photographs spanning 150 years chronicle the evolution of the American family in a new exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. The concept is explored in its broadest form, from the families we’re born in to the ones we’ve chosen, with a wide range of relationships and structures.

“The family is such a basic social construct and something that most of us have experienced in one way or another over the course of our lives, so I hope that the work in the exhibition will resonate with our visitors on a very elemental level,” said curator Karen Haas in an email.

The selection has followed a few simple criteria: “We only present images of American families, and we only include images in which the family members are visible within the frame, even when one of them is the artist herself or himself,” said Haas.

Among the artists represented in the exhibition, titled “(un)expected families,” are Andy Warhol, Nan Goldin, Tina Barney, Gordon Parks, Sally Mann, Diane Arbus, Nicholas Nixon and Bruce Davidson. Some of the oldest photographs depict children sat on the laps of concealed adults — a trick used in the 1860s and 1870s to keep infants still during shoots.

The shots are intentionally mixed in style: “From the very start we discussed the importance of featuring not only fine art photography, but also documentary, vernacular and snapshot photographs,” said Haas.

Although many of the photos show biological or romantic families, the exhibition explores “chosen families” as well, often documented by photographers embedded in particular groups. Among these are shots by Louie Palu, who spent years in Afghanistan covering the war and taking portraits of marines there.

One of Haas’ favorite images in the exhibition is a shot by Nan Goldin depicting two drag queen friends in New York’s East Village in 1991: “Goldin lost many of her circle to the AIDS epidemic; images like these are tangible records of powerful human connections in fragile times. As Goldin says: ‘I used to think that I could never lose anyone if I photographed them enough. In fact, my pictures show me how much I’ve lost.'”

The exhibition also includes an interactive component, prompting visitors to share their own perspectives by thinking about a real or imagined photograph of their family and describing its meaning onto a card. A selection of these written responses will be put on display, and all will be archived as part of a permanent exhibition record.

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