Finding Tenderness in Post-War America

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// Tasnim Elboute

America, Men and, you guessed it, Tenderness converge in Laura Wexler’s photographs of tree-shaded, picket-fenced microcosms that are the Boston suburbs of her childhood. Fathers come home to children, men chop wood in undershirts, boys ride on bikes and boys play ball, all semi-obscured by low hanging branches, roofs, brambles, or the occasional telephone pole. The gentle stuff of suburbia almost makes you forget that it is 1968: America is in the midst of Vietnam and a year of assassinations. In black-and-white depictions of the places she grew up, a twenty year old Wexler captures the subtle, precarious magic of humans in their home away from the city, away from the madness of the post-World War II world.

The concept of getting away from the city and its inevitable chaos, instead focusing on intimate moments of daily life, pervades Wexler’s 21 triumphant, if barely tilted, frames. Collared shirts imply ironing, and serve as one of many examples throughout the collection of “devotions offered to ‘normality,’ and modest little prayers for peace,” in Wexler’s words. But at the same time, ties are askew, off-center, as on the “Depositor at Shawmut Bank” who poses, affable in front of the bank, strong white pillars tilted in the photo. There is tension, too, in the furrowed eyebrows of the men who rake a lawn in unison in “Men at Work, #3.” Piles of wood lean against homes and simple, white furniture sit on the lawn carefully placed, in “Backyard,” waiting patiently for people to move them again.

During her time at MIT, Laura Wexler studied photography and protested against the Vietnam War and the ensuing suppression of civil rights. This collection is the product of a year-long project to capture the suburbs of her earlier years in an attempt to show the fraying of an American social contract, a post-war crossroads in the heart of outward stability: the silent war of keeping it together in the suburbs. These photographs show the quiet restraint and plea for peace in normal tasks of the home. Every scene hearkens back to a past moment and emphasizes the tenuousness of the future, even the present, in its seemingly hasty composition and off-center subjects. The whim of a moment is stuck forever, perilously in print.

Many times a fence, or a row of bushes acting as a fence, inserts the viewer into the neighborhood as a participant in the scene, as someone peeking through, searching for humanity, searching for tenderness. It also tests the viewer, forces her to put up a front that everything is perfect, to match the furniture, and to conform to a world that tries its hardest to differentiate itself from the outside disorder.

Men and boys largely make up the tender subjects in this exhibit, but two notable exceptions remain: “Self-Portrait” of Wexler herself, and of her mother in “My Mother in her Kitchen.” These two are found at the collection’s end, as the subject matter becomes more intimate in the sense that it turns to the inside of the house, zooming in from “Daddy’s Home” on the outside to an image of her mother to an image of Wexler’s own face. Her face “was the white face of the post-war promise,” she says, her hair slightly disheveled, unwashed and tossed across the front of her right shoulder next to a shirt unzipped only an inch, hardly enough to notice. A less glamorous version of the classic Mona Lisa smile parts her lips, looks us in the eyes, and asks us if we believe in the tenderness of the suburbs just yet.

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