Any art exhibition has three basic elements: the art, its organization, and what the show is about. The first one matters the most. The second tends to get overlooked. The third is often the trickiest. A show about an artist or period is straightforward enough. But when the organizing principle is thematic, things can get . . . complicated.
That’s the case with “(un)expected families,” which runs at the Museum of Fine Arts through June 17. Consider the lower-case, typographically too-clever title a red flag — though in most important respects it’s a red flag worth ignoring.
There are upward of 90 photographs in the show. Many are terrific, unfamiliar, or, that happiest of visual two-fers, both. Try to resist the sheer irresistibility of the showstopping little guys in Ernest C. Withers’s “Twins at WDIA, Memphis” or the two kids flanked by parents in Elsa Dorfman’s “Nayla, Ted, Alexandra, Nick, March 30, 1995.”
Some of the hangings are inspired. The MFA’s Karen Haas, Lane curator of photography, organized the show, most of which is drawn from the museum’s holdings.
Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Family, Texas,” from 1936, hangs next to Julie Mack’s “Self-portrait with family in SUV, Michigan,” from 2007, which hangs next to Mary Ellen Mark’s 1987 photograph of a homeless family in Los Angeles reduced to living out of their car. Each image is so striking — and the status of the families in the flanking photographs so heartbreaking — that the vehicular connection is easy to miss.
Or there’s the quintet of photographs showing a group or couple arranged around that most domestic of sites, a kitchen table. Two are by Carrie Mae Weems, one by Tina Barney, one by Bruce Davidson, and, the real surprise, one by Lewis Hine.
The show’s aim, a wall label states, is to address “a single, rich question: how have photographers captured, in individual images, the power and intimacy of the family, broadly defined?”
The problem is those last two words. Defined too broadly, any concept loses definition. Remember Sister Sledge? In 1979, they hit No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “We Are Family.” It’s a Sister Sledge approach that the show takes. To proclaim is to be: We are (un)expected families.
What does a portrait of a Marine in Afghanistan (there are two, by Louie Palu) have to do with family? Or Danny Lyon’s of a pair of motorcycle-club members? Christopher Churchill’s picture of students in a Hutterite school is a knockout. But the implicit assumption, that a religious sect is a version of family, is as uncomprehending of belief communities as a majority of North Carolina legislators were of the complexities of human gender.
In a time when people who are gay or transgender are under sustained and widespread attack, it’s tonic and welcome to be reminded of just how elastic a concept family can be. But get too elastic, and a concept becomes meaningless. A more accurate title might have been “(un)expected families and communities.” There is a difference, and that difference gets ignored.
An example of how usefully the show can stretch definitions is Dawoud Bey’s 2005 portrait of a young African-American man. But wait, there’s just one person in the frame, like those Marines. Family is as inherently plural a concept as there is. Ah, but the portrait is a kind of visual/verbal diptych. In an accompanying text, Kevin, the young man, talks about the enduring impact of his father’s death when he was a boy. It’s the very absence of another person that makes it so poignant a meditation on family.
The most populous family in the show, if also the most loosely defined, is that of Greater Boston photographers. In both numbers and quality of work, local representation is impressive. Beside Dorfman, they include Abelardo Morell, Roswell Angier, Caleb Cole, David Hilliard, Henry Horenstein, Arno Rafael Minkkinen, Zoe Perry-Wood, Jeannie Simms, Amber Tourlentes, and Stephen Tourlentes.
There’s also Nicholas Nixon, who has two photographs here. His “Tammy Hindle,” which shows a faceless mother holding a family photo of her dead child, may be the most moving image in a show that has many. Nixon’s inclusion would seem almost mandatory. “The Brown Sisters,” his annual group portraits of his wife and her sisters, has to be contemporary photography’s most famous evocation of family life. But to include that would not have been (un)expected. It also would have been redundant. “Nicholas Nixon: Persistence of Vision” just opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art.
At Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through June 17. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.orgMark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.