PRINT October 1991


A YOUNG BOY stares down at a plate piled with raw meat, which sits on an ordinary kitchen counter. The kitchen has an archetypally middle-American appearance, neat cabinets lining its walls, pots and pans arrayed on the stove, a line of cannisters atop the double-door refrigerator. Yet something is awry. The young boy wears the solemn, questioning look of one who is approaching a potentially momentous realization. An unnaturally bright light illuminates his face and shirt. The source of this light is unclear; perhaps the meat is glowing. Certainly, his expression seems to say, Mom isn’t going to serve us this. Yet the very solemnity of his gaze assures us that, yes, no matter Ate what his qualms, this is dinner.

This kind of scene is familiar to many American children, especially those who are white and whose parents have jobs. Such children often consider a meal’s main course inedible, largely inconsequential, and yucky. Most of them, however, have no cause to suspect the very origin of the main course, which is what the child in Philip-Lorca DiCorcia’s color photograph is doing (it was shot on the set of the 1989 domestic horror film Parents): the question here is not what died but who died that Little Brian might eat.

Aside from the comical menace at the heart of this image, what is unusual about it is that it graces the cover of a book published in tandem with a photography exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The very title of the enterprise, Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort—signifying not only an actual subject for the pictures (“domestic comfort”) but one that will run an emotional and psychological gamut (from “pleasure” to “terror”)—is a departure for the Modern’s photography department, where the cool, the understated, and the formally exquisite have reigned, under the auspices of director John Szarkowski, for close to 30 years. Perhaps Szarkowski’s announcement of his retirement over the summer will help to make space for a new spirit in the department. Its staff had already shown a desire to investigate social, cultural, and even political imperatives as well as the traditional formal and technical issues, with curator Susan Kismaric in particular introducing new ideas and new artists to the department’s rarefied, clubbish, and heavily male environment. Among Kismaric’s best innovations were inviting the artist Barbara Kruger to curate “Picturing Greatness,” in 1988, a show of portraits of (mostly male) artists, and her own curation of an exhibition of social documentary work entitled “British Photography From the Thatcher Years” in 1991. Simply to imply that serious, nonjournalistic photography could be influenced and even shaped by a conservative politician such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher is unusual in the extreme for the Modern.

Kismaric’s forays outside the previous boundaries of the photographically acceptable, and now the Pleasures and Terrors project, curated by Peter Galassi, another longtime member of the department, have clearly been influenced by esthetic and social developments that had previously been almost totally ignored at MoMA: the hodgepodge that is post-Modernism, and the broad impact of feminism. This is not to say that either Kismaric or Galassi has repudiated Szarkowski’s influence. His voice and ideas are everywhere present in their work, especially in their catalogue essays, where they follow his lead in trying to pin down how photographs communicate in uniquely photographic terms. Galassi’s project, in fact, is indebted to a typically Szarkowskian precedent: the 1976 exhibition and catalogue William Eggleston’s Guide, which Galassi discusses in Pleasures and Terrors.

Anyone interested in photography knows by now how controversial Eggleston’s photographs were when they were shown at MoMA. They were in color, then virtually unheard of as a medium for serious photographic artists, and they showed the most insignificant and ephemeral moments and places—a dog drinking from a puddle, a jigsaw puzzle laid out on a card table, a dirt road at twilight—of the locales where Eggleston grew up, in and around Memphis, Tennessee, and Tallahatchie County, Mississippi. The images looked uncomposed and even random. They certainly set a kind of precedent for the current show in that they were so unabashedly centered on domestic life, and a few are included in Galassi’s current book, which, again following Eggleston, is mostly in color.

Yet artists since 1976 have widened what can be said and seen in domestic photography while preserving its special focus of the home. A small comparison between the Eggleston Guide and Galassi’s Pleasures will help clarify what has changed, not only in MoMA’s photography department, but in the broader conception of what constitutes serious photography. In both books the section of color plates opens with an image of the outside of a house. Eggleston’s gray door hung with a basket of assorted blue flowers, for all its seemingly casual composition, is in a stylistic tradition exemplified by Walker Evans, a seminal figure in MoMA’s interpretation of photography. The clear description of the door—sun-dappled and off-center in the picture frame—recalls Evans’ 1930 pictures of cottages at Ossining, New York. In contrast is Ellen Brooks’ Front Entry, 1990, which opens Galassi’s book. Using her characteristic grainy pointillism, Brooks shows this home as a refuge that is at the same time vaguely threatening, and bathed in a murky blue haze. What matters to Eggleston is a purity of photographic scrutiny. What matters to Brooks is what she thinks and feels about the home and how she tries to convey it.

The next four images in Galassi’s, book mine the territory of unease that Brooks’ picture has intimated. A well-known picture by DiCorcia shows a youngish man gazing disconsolately into the glowing innards of a fridge. His sheer physical numbness bespeaks spiritual exhaustion, especially in contrast to the perky packaging of the nonstick Pam and Kraft’s Swiss Slices visible at his elbow. Beside this picture is an image from Eggleston’s Guide of an open, empty oven. In this context the picture reads as a metaphor for some yawning emptiness rather than as a sheerly descriptive rendering of the mundane, as it had in the earlier book. Next in Pleasures, Gregory Crewdson catches a family dog in a glaring light that portrays the isolation even of contemporary pets. These three pictures are surprisingly evocative, casting their subjects in an affectionate light even as they expose a gnawing ennui.

In the fourth photograph in the sequence a black couple eye each other, seductively but distrustfully, as they play cards. The image, by Carrie Mae Weems, raises a variety of questions, not least among them whether a black female photographer has ever been shown before by MoMA’s photography department. The purposefully double-edged quality of the couple’s interaction helps set the tone for what follows. Human relations are seldom easy or warm. In a Nan Goldin image two people lie in bed reading—but they’re reading Baudelaire, the poet of despair. A family at table in an often-seen image by Tina Barney is gathered around the Sunday New York Times; despite their physical closeness they seem strangely distant. Only when we come to Nicholas Nixon’s pictures of his children, Sam and Clementine, fooling around at home, do we see anything approaching the popular idea of domestic normalcy.

It’s significant that many of the pictures that show complicated or problematic human relations are by women. Whether this is because women are more apt to think those kinds of interactions are important enough to be recorded, or because women are more apt to see them in the first place, is a toss-up. In a picture by Susan Kandel, a father embraces and kisses his young son so aggressively that the child grimaces and tries to pull away. Mary Frey shows two young, overweight girls in a typically cluttered bedroom, one intently squeezing the other’s staring face, to which she is applying makeup. Some of the men in Galassi’s book also picture relationships, but they tend to look only at their own families. Among those who cast a wider net is Jock Sturges, whose photographs of friends and their families in various states of undress fell victim to the recent conservative witch-hunt against any depiction of sexuality.

This distinction between men and women photographers can be drawn here, of course, only because so many women—fully half of the 60-plus artists whose work is reproduced—are included in the book. This constitutes a veritable revolution in the photography department, which, like so many other departments in so many other museums in this country, has been criticized for giving women only infinitesimal recognition.

If there is a glaring shortcoming in Pleasures and Comforts, it is one that Galassi himself acknowledges: that the racial, ethnic, and economic diversity of the country is hardly represented, and that social problems such as drug abuse, homelessness, child abuse, and other domestic violence are not represented at all. In part this can be accounted for by Galassi’s clear preference for the photography of artists rather than photojournalists, a number of whom have done projects in the areas neglected in Pleasures. But perhaps the delicate nuances of (mainly white, mainly middle-class) family life—its moods and tensions and ambiguities—could not easily have stood up to images of the more overt problems with which the mass media have made us so familiar.

Early on in his essay, Galassi quotes a 1982 passage by John Updike that beautifully reveals the stringent limitations not only of the fiction but of most of the art that was privileged just ten years ago. “American fiction,” Updike wrote, “deals in the main with the amorous and spiritual difficulties of young upper-middle-class adults; a visitor arriving in New York after studying the short stories of, say, Ann Beattie and Donald Barthelme. . . would be ill-prepared for the industrial sprawl of Queens and the black slums of Brooklyn, for the squalid carnival of the avenues and the sneaking dread of the side streets after dark.” Updike was right about a certain body of fiction, but how things have changed. A wider voice in American fiction and nonfiction too has begun to be claimed by writers of color, among them the African-American writers Michele Wallace and bell hooks, the Filipino novelist Jessica Hagedorn, and the Palestinian-Israeli writer Anton Shammas. Even the issues that white middle-class male writers deal with were changing as Updike wrote. In Don DeLillo’s White Noise, for instance, from 1984, the white professor of “Hitler Studies” finds himself and his family trapped between the capitalist bombardments of TV, the seductions of the prescription-drug culture, and the perils of a mysterious environmental accident—an “airborne toxic event.” In other words, DeLillo deals with “the news” not as an abstraction but as an almost palpable reality that permeates our lives and our culture. That fact is something with which both literature and photography—no matter how artistic—will eventually have to come to terms.

Galassi rightly attributes the rise of domestic subject matter to the fact that the baby-boomers have started having children. Having grown up in the ’50s and come of age in the ’60s, the boomers have a special slant on what makes America tick. It is their sensibility that has shaped the pop-culture vision of the not-exactly-dysfunctional but not-quite-normal family that’s become the norm on television and in movies. But on TV especially, the foibles of family life are exaggerated and oversimplified so as to look funny and even adorable, an endless series of loving one-liners. In contrast, the pictures in Galassi’s book show the powerful undercurrents of confused motives, mixed signals, and muffled signs of love that constitute the intimacy of daily life. That Galassi has chosen to tackle such a subject, and that he does it with a great measure of success, is remarkable.

Carol Squiers contributes regularly to Artforum. She is senior editor of American Photo.

“Pleasures and Terrors of Domestic Comfort” opened on 26 September at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and continues there until 31 December. It will then travel nationally.