You can't choose your family, but only in the narrowest, biological sense. Beyond some unavoidable facts of heredity, our families are pretty much whatever we choose to make of them, and there's no limit to the forms they can take or how they might evolve over time.
Even the most conventional arrangements are subject to evolution: kids grow up and parents get old, dynamics of power and responsibility shift, new partners and new babies come on the scene, relationships end, people die, people move away. Circumstances change and everybody improvises.
We renegotiate the terms of kinship at less decisive moments too, though. We do it every time we pose for a family photograph.
Tuck in your shirt! Get your hair out of your face! Smile! To some extent we're always "performing" familial roles -- the diligent parent, the devoted child, the creepy uncle. The presence of a camera only underscores the fact.
All in the Family is an engaging, wide-ranging exhibition of photographic works pulled from the WAG's permanent collection by Alex King that capably investigates the "family photograph" as an artifact, a convention, and a reflection of identity -- one that may or may not be entirely reliable.
Organized loosely around the themes of "shared experience," "home," "identity" and "care," the show introduces us to families of all kinds. George Hunter's Typical River Heights Family from 1945 looks about how you'd expect them to (two kids, a dog, and a well-appointed suburban living room), but we also encounter gay and lesbian couples, nervous newlyweds, single mothers and their children, groups of siblings, friends in a nursing home, an extended Métis family, and a woman who holds up her poodle with evident pride.
It's always valuable to be reminded that families come in all configurations, "traditional" or otherwise. The show additionally highlights the work of significant local artists and photographers, including Sheila Spence, Larry Glawson, Bill Eakin and Rosalie Favell, who offer particular insight into our own regional communities. As important to All in the Family as its diversity of subjects, however, is a diversity of approaches to photography, and the show does much to remind us of that medium's quirks and shortcomings.
There are posed scenes as well as candid images. Repurposed snapshots remind us of the transformation that takes place when any object or image is placed in a museum. There are works of documentary photojournalism, but there are also fabricated scenes. There's a "family portrait" taken on a film set depicting unrelated actors. Donigan Cummings' large-scale photographs showing an elderly couple in a cramped apartment are in fact meticulously staged. In a piece of accidental fiction, Claire Beaugrand-Champagne misidentifies an actual older married couple as cousins.
The thing is this: without the accompanying texts and captions, you'd never have known.
In some cases, the artifice is in the foreground, as in Diana Thorneycroft's characteristically creepy Untitled (Family self-portrait), which shows the artist sprawled a leopard-print cloth amid strewn-about dolls and mannequins sporting masks made from photos of her mother and brother. By interjecting this and other subtly (and not-so-subtly) unsettling works into the "familiar" realm of scrapbooks and photo albums, the exhibition makes room for doubt, calling on us to examine the uniqueness and mutability of our own families and how we choose to represent them.
Families are what we choose make of them, it seems, whether they're our own or not.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a Winnipeg-based artist, writer, and educator from Tampa, Fla.