WINCHESTER — Imagine that Tolstoy had given Anna Karenina a camera. All photographed families are alike; every unphotographed family is unphotographed in its own way? Family images have a tidal pull that’s unique and almost universal.
Judith Black’s family is American. She has a husband, two daughters and two sons. Bjørn Sterri’s family is Norwegian. He has a wife (who looks a little like the actress Rooney Mara) and two sons. They have different photographic approaches. His is somewhat more rigid and less, well, familial. Yet their work has in common that special tug of family and unmistakable emotional dynamic. Anyone in a family can’t help but notice this. Someone without a family might notice it even more.
Black’s and Sterri’s photographs make up “Family Album.” Curated by Barbara Hitchcock, it runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through Feb. 26. Also running through that date are Parker Thompson’s “Intimacies, Long Lost — Selections From the Always Been Collection,” James Lustenader’s “Point/Counterpoint,” and the museum’s 13th annual exhibition of photobooks from Griffin members.
Black, who makes an appearance in “To Look and Learn: The Creative Photography Laboratory at MIT,” currently at the MIT Museum, headed the photography program at Wellesley College for 25 years. Her 33 photographs on display are unframed. This makes them seem less distanced, as befits family portraits. Most are from the ‘80s and ‘90s, up to 2002. Children grow, go to college, one has a child of her own. There’s a balance between affection, Black’s, and investigation, the camera’s.
The photographs are posed, as are Sterri’s, but more casually. It’s hard to imagine the Sterris sitting for the camera on a porch, for example, as members of Black’s family do several times — or having someone pose with a David Bowie poster prominently in the background.
All of Black’s photos are in black and white, as are 29 of Sterri’s. He took them with a view camera, which might have something to do with that sense of being less casual. He also has 29 Polaroids in “Family Album.” They come as a bit of a shock, being so much smaller and in color.
The photographs span nearly a quarter century, the Polaroids starting in 1997, the black-and-whites ending in 2021. Sterri will use the occasional flourish — blurring, double exposure — but mostly the photographs are straightforward (that rigidity). There are interesting questions of identity raised, though the photographer may not be aware of them. Why does Sterri entitle self-portraits “Self” (seems a mite Karl Ove Knausgaard-ish, no?) or use the first-person singular possessive in group titles, “My Family,” rather than the plural?
Another question is curatorial: Why not hang the photographs chronologically — or would that seem reductive? Part of the not-inconsiderable fascination of Nicholas Nixon’s “Brown Sisters” series, the most famous of all contemporary photographic family projects, is its being so forthrightly chronological.
In appearance if not execution, Sterri’s Polaroids are a form of snapshot. This means they chime with the otherwise extremely different images in “Intimacies, Long Lost — Selections from the Always Been Collection.”
Always Been is an online archive created and curated by Parker Thompson, a Brandeis undergraduate. It consists of anonymous vernacular photographs of Black Americans, mostly from the first half of the last century. There are nearly four dozen images in the show: snapshots, photo-booth portraits, and the like. These views of everyday Black life are alternately charming, goofy, intriguing, matter of fact, moving, and mysterious.
There’s a famous Walker Evans photograph, “Penny Picture Display, Savannah,” from 1936, that shows a sign for a commercial photographer. The sign consists of 225 thumbnail-sized portraits: all these average Americans posing for the camera, unaware of the place in posterity that awaits. In the presence of “Intimacies, Long Lost,” you may find yourself thinking what Evans did. “I look at it,” he said of the sign, “and think, and think, and think about all those people.”
The half-dozen photographs in James Lustenader’s “Point/Counterpoint” are part of the museum’s “Illuminating the Archives” series. A contemporary photographer’s images are paired with work by the museum’s namesake, the Boston photojournalist Arthur Griffin (1903-2001).
The parallels here are evident without being obvious: similarity but not imitation. More important, Lustenader’s photographs are pleasing seen simply in their own terms: a Melbourne mural painter, young people cavorting in a fountain in Slovenia, an Elvis impersonator regally ensconced in the back of a convertible in Vermont.
The photobook exhibit includes two dozen volumes. Each is worthy of mention. Let David Sokosh’s “Things That Look Like the MOON (but are not the moon)” stand in for all. These cyanotypes of lunar-like objects are every bit as beguiling as the title of the book that contains them.
JUDITH BLACK & BJØRN STERRI: Family Album
PARKER THOMPSON: Intimacies, Long Lost — Selections From the Always Been Collection
JAMES LUSTENADER: Point/Counterpoint
13th ANNUAL PHOTOBOOK EXHIBITION
At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Rd., Winchester, through Feb. 26. 781-729-1158, www.griffinmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.