New exhibit looks to the family at Art Institute

By Nora Vallerini

Photography plays a role in all of our lives. It allows us to capture a moment, a place, or people. Photos provide tangible complements to our memories, which, when strung together, tell a story.

The five artists featured in the exhibit So the Story Goes at the Art Institute of Chicago use very personal photographs to tell their stories. Tina Barney, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, and Larry Sultan each have a unique style and story. Yet the themes they cover, such as family, are not unique.

The first artist exhibited, Tina Barney, focuses on capturing her family and friends as they go about their everyday business. The photographs are displayed in large four-by-five-foot prints, which allow the viewer to feel that he’s in the moment.

But when we’re brought into these moments, the feeling is not comforting or familial. Barney’s photographic style exposes a disconnect between her family members. She has said, “When people say that there is a distance, a stiffness in my photographs, that the people look like they do not connect, my answer is, that this is the best we can do.”

The featured photograph of Barney’s exhibit, Jill and Polly in the Bathroom (1987), is a great example of the coldness within her family dynamic. Jill, Barney’s sister, and Polly, Barney’s niece, are shown standing in matching pink bathrobes, which match the pink décor of the bathroom. While the two are standing close to each other, their actions do not reflect awareness of each other in any way. The overwhelming use of pink, which is typically a light and fluffy color, is stifling, and this feeling is softened only by Jill’s action of pulling back the curtain window to reveal the outdoors.

While she portrays her family with a certain level of stiffness, Barney also offers her audience an idea of what the people in her family are like. Because their actions and poses are not directed, the people featured in her photographs are acting as they wish. In almost all cases, a glimpse of the subject’s personality is best gained from their eyes.

The next body of work displayed in the exhibit is Immediate Family, by Sally Mann. Mann, like Barney, focuses on her family, but in a much different way. Mann uses her children’s actions as her subject matter. Whereas Barney uses color to bring her photographs to life, Mann makes startling use of black and white. The black and white, along with the content of her photos, makes Mann’s photographs somewhat disturbing.

The first three pictures of the display—Emmett’s Bloody Nose (1985), Jessie Bites (1985), and The Wet Bed (1987)—depict common childhood events in an eerie and unsettling way.

In addition to these mild accidents, Mann also photographs various scenes in which her children appear to be dead, although it seems that this was not her intent. For instance, Jessie’s Cut (1985) is a photo of her daughter lying asleep in bed with a stitched up cut on her head. The stitches are not readily obvious, however, because a piece of plastic covered in blood is wrapped around her head, as if she had been shot.

As Mann’s children grow up, her focus shifts toward nature. She begins experimenting with 19th-century photographic techniques, which add to the chilling feeling of her work. She continues to use her children as subject matters, but now she focuses on their faces. Through her children’s eyes you can gain an understanding of the people they’ve become and of the lives they live.

After Mann’s work comes A Storybook Life by Philip-Lorca diCorcia, who presents his work differently from that of the first two artists. He has selected 76 photographs to be viewed in a specific order. The prints are much smaller than those presented by Mann and Barney.

The photographs also differ in how personal they feel. The first and last pieces in the series, in each of which his father is lying down—asleep on his bed in the first, lying dead in his coffin in the last—are clearly personal in nature. Many other photographs, however, give the impression that diCorcia is visually eavesdropping on other people’s lives.

DiCorcia frequently photographs scenes through other objects, such as a window or an open doorframe. With regard to content, “Los Angeles” (1990) is a good example of diCorcia making his audience feel as though they have intruded upon something personal. The photograph depicts two men up against a building at night. Whether they are hugging or fighting is unclear, but the one closest to the camera has turned around to stare into the lens.

Following diCorcia’s work is Larry Sultan’s Pictures from Home. Sultan chooses to make his parents his primary focus. His body of work is a combination of pictures he has taken of them in their advanced age, photographs of them from when they were younger, and stills taken from family home videos.

This collection makes for a highly personal display of family life that is much more comforting and warm than Barney’s or Mann’s. Convention Documents (1986) displays family photos clustered together much like they would be on a wall at home. Some of the shots capture such basic objects as a nightstand, creating a feeling of familiarity and comfort.

The last set of photographs presented in So the Story Goes is by Nan Goldin. Goldin’s style is highly personal, revealing content that many people might feel is too private for the public eye. She uses herself and friends much like the previous artists used family, but she takes it further, displaying people in their most intimate moments: a friend as she is getting out of the shower, Goldin herself making love to her boyfriend, and a shot of her face after that same boyfriend has beaten her. Even her titles hold nothing back—examples include “Cookie with me after I was punched, Baltimore, MD” (1986) and “Cookie in her casket, NYC, November 15, 1989.”

In addition to the photographs hung on the walls of the museum, the Art Institute also shows Goldin’s work The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in a small, dark room at the end of the display. A slide show of hundreds of pictures runs for over 40 minutes, in a random order, with various songs playing in the background. The resulting work illustrates how Goldin focuses on the intimate relationships between people. Often, the understanding the viewer gains about those in the picture comes from something as subtle as the glance of the subject or his body language.