Monday, April 15, 2013

Sunday in the Family Room

After hours of pulling out my wallet every 25 minutes, I desperately needed to end an afternoon of non-stop commercial transactions with some culture, preferably at a quiet and climate-controlled indoor venue. Guess where I happened to be? Across the street from a museum that’s free on Sundays. Timing, probably more than money, changes everything.

I could hear them as I walked down a staircase toward the exhibit hall. A multigenerational family carried on as if they were at home, keyed up after Sunday dinner. So much for noiselessness, but they were likable and the gallery space had central air.

The room was devoted to a photojournalism project on civil-rights-era urban poverty, spotlighting a married couple who had 8 of their 10 children living with them in an Upper Manhattan tenement. Many of the photos ran in a 1968 issue of Life magazine, every image slayed me, and I wondered where everyone was today.

Now a few of the talkative visitors were taking pictures. One was crying.

“If she was in the midst of a struggle, how come her curls were poppin’?” a teenager asked.

“Because she was an unlicensed beautician.”

These visitors were younger generations of the family featured on the walls. I thought two of the older relatives in the room might have been kids in the photos, but now that I’m obsessed with their story, I just Google-read that only one of the photographed kids made it past the age of 30 – and this longest-living offspring died at 48, 5 months ago, 3 days after the exhibit opened.

When I was on my way out, most of the clan posed for a picture taken by another not-tacky-at-all visitor who must have overheard who they were. The one who’d been crying said this family’s second generation “has done just fine.” It was nice to have that confirmed, but I’d suspected as much midway through my first lap around, when I really got a sense of this team’s spirit.


  1. I almost can't believe your good fortune in encountering the younger generations of the family whose photographs appeared on the walls. This is the type of thing that is a photography historian's dream. I'm sure you've seen the famous Dorothea Lange photograph called "Migrant Mother." It is of the haggard, despairing face of a destitute migrant farm woman in 1936 during the Great Depression. Her small children press their faces into her shoulders. I gulp whenever I see it. It really sums up an era. That woman (the real woman: Florence Owens Thompson) was rediscovered in 1978, and periodically someone goes to interview her. I'm not sure that Florence and her several children actually "prospered" financially, but they definitely survived. (Her husband died.) Florence and her family are a real testament to human determination and spirit, as are the people you saw in the photographs from the Civil Rights urban poverty era.

  2. That's so cool. I love other people's stories and their histories - it fascinates me to no end. It's also one of the reasons I like to "people-watch"... I wonder who they are and where they come from, and what kind of lives they lead etc.

  3. I can hardly believe that they all died so young in this day and age. That's very sad. But what luck to meet the next generations.

  4. Milton Rogovin (with the help of his wife Anne) wrote a book similar to that display at the museum. It's called "The Forgotten Ones" (2003, The Quantuck Lane Press, New York)and it's a 30 year progression in pictures of some people who he found fascinating but whom society would have forgotten or never known about. Some stories are uplifting while others are of a blues song subject but all of them are fascinating. If you get a chance to see it, you'll remember it for a long time.