‘Tenderness’ on display

“The Tenderness of Men in Suburbs” captures the mundanity of everyday life in 1968 despite the widespread fear of the atomic age.
“The Tenderness of Men in Suburbs” captures the mundanity of everyday life in 1968 despite the widespread fear of the atomic age. Photo by Tasnim Elboute.

On display at the Whitney Humanities Center is a visual inculcation of the tribulations and sentiments of a generation of men traumatized by the militarism, fear and despair that accompanied World War II and the Cold War.

“The Tenderness of Men in Suburbs,” an exhibition of photographs taken in 1968 by American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Laura Wexler, opened yesterday in Gallery at the Whitney. The show encapsulates the quotidian tasks, such as mowing the lawn or going to work, that men at the time performed under the weighty and distressing specter of the atomic bomb, nuclear tension and mutually assured destruction. Wexler said her pictures capture the stark contrast between the somber political climate of the Vietnam War era and the mundanity of everyday life in the Boston suburbs of Brookline and Newton.

Inspired by a conversation she had over lunch with her father — during which she became cognizant of the deeply ingrained fear World War II veterans felt toward the atomic bomb — Wexler’s photography represents an “incision into history … a registration of past and present,” she said, adding that the images gave her a sense of pause in a time of social unrest marked by a “frail social contract.” That these men “continued to be gentle” within this social and historical context was remarkable, she explained, especially considering the ubiquity of the atomic bomb and World War II’s vivid remnants.

“The suburbs were an interlude of peace for people who knew that peace might never happen,” she said.

Jules Prown, a former history of art professor at Yale, said the pictures represent “a slice of a historical period,” and noted the blanket of harmony which smothers the scenes in the photographs. This concord came in spite of the “uproar” and turmoil which at the time had invaded nearby college campuses such as Harvard, he said.

Joseph Gordon, dean of undergraduate education, also mentioned the juxtaposition of instability and tranquility in the photographs.

“[The photographs] depict the things we take for granted,” Gordon said. “For me, it was a period marked by all kinds of changes in society — the roles of women, the beginning of the end of segregation, and the emergence of gay and lesbian public identities. We began to understand the true diversity and complexity of America.”

Yet despite their newfound comprehension of America’s shifting social climate, suburban men continued to follow their routines, Prown explained. The pictures on display demonstrate precisely this phenomenon, depicting ordinary, even pastoral scenes of labor and homeliness, such as two men sawing a log of wood, or a young man watching television in a kitchen.

Wexler said these moments that blended simplicity and complexity were pivotal in her career.

“The impulse behind documentary photography took me over,” Wexler said, explaining that she found herself struck by the power of her camera. “I was making images, but I didn’t want to keep making images. … I wanted to discover what it meant to stand on one side of the camera and capture something on the other. I became not an image maker, but an image teacher.”

“The Tenderness of Men in Suburbs” is on display at the Whitney Humanities Center from Sept. 25 through Dec. 18.

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