Barbara Pollack was born two years after perhaps the most famous, popular, and enduringly controversial photo show of all time, the Museum of Modern Art’s 1955 protoblockbuster, “The Family of Man,” organized by Edward Steichen. But, because her father was an amateur photographer, the Brooklyn native grew up with the show’s bestselling catalogue as a favorite picture book. And, as an adult writer about the arts, she’s absorbed all the cranky critical dialogue Steichen’s triumph of (and, arguably, last hurrah for) humanist photography has generated over the years. Now Pollack has responded to this flurry of influence with an exhibition of her own: “The Family of Men,” at Thread Waxing Space, 476 Broadway, through March 6. Call it an answer show.
Appropriating and opening up Paul Rudolph’s layered design for the original show— with images of all different sizes floating across the walls and suspended throughout the space— Pollack fills the room with 50 pictures of her family: husband Joel and son Max, now 11. Max appears as a three-day-old in two small close-ups, and if the show has any narrative, it revolves around his growing up. (Quite literally, in this case: the largest picture makes six-year-old Max 11 feet tall.) But narrative isn’t what Pollack’s after here. In spite of the meticulously ordered installation, she says, “We set up things to convey chaos.”
Rudolph knocked Steichen’s show as “Tits and Tots,” but Pollack counters the original’s dewy-eyed take on nurturing motherhood with the voice of experience. “For a mother,” she says, “being in a family often means being terrorized by the guys you’re living with, and constantly bombarded by need.” Pollack responded by taking Polaroids— hundreds of them— and recording not so much a moment as a mood. Her photos, made without flash and often while Joel and Max were in motion, look more like hallucinations than documents. Figures dissolve into gorgeous magenta fog or resolve again like ghosts in fuzzy surveillance shots. Pollack locates the dementia in domesticity: family as a fine frenzy.