Co.Create

Awkward Family Photos Become Art With New Museum Exhibit

AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com co-creator Mike Bender walks Co.Create through the exhibit and explains how it came to be.

The popular site AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com has spawned everything from books to a board game, and, now, a museum exhibit at The California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica where fans can gaze upon delightfully horrifying family photos from the site’s extensive collection through July 27 of this year. Visitors to the exhibit can also create and take home their own awful photos at the Awkward Family Photo portrait studio, which provides bad clothing and silly props.

Mike Bender, who created AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com with childhood friend and fellow screenwriter Doug Chernack in 2009, admits the pair could have never imagined that their endeavor would lead to a museum exhibit when they first launched the site. That said, as time went on, they began to think about the possibility. “We started to toy around with the idea of, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could have these photos hung in a serious museum setting?" Bender says. "We liked the juxtaposition of these fun photos in a serious museum and the idea of allowing people to interact with the photos up close and personal. When you look at them on a web page, you browse quickly, but in a museum setting you can really look at them and digest all the photos in one place."

Their friend Angie Behm, director of strategy at Los Angeles-based entertainment advertising agency Ant Farm and a member of the advisory board for The California Heritage Museum as well as chair of the museum’s social and marketing team, thought it was a great idea and pitched the exhibit. “What better place to proudly display the awkward family moments that we can all relate to than in a house?” Behm says, pointing out that The California Heritage Museum was once the home of Roy Jones, whose father founded Santa Monica.

Bender and Chernack curated the Awkard Family Photos exhibit, spending months sorting through photos. Over the years, they have gathered hundreds of thousands of images for AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com, and they chose some of the site’s most popular for inclusion. They also wanted to have some surprises in the exhibit, Bender says, so it includes some photos that have not been posted on AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com.

Given that we live in a day and age when people only post the most flattering photos on Facebook and elsewhere, it’s incredible to think that people willingly share their terrible photos with these guys. “We license these photos from the families, so we have their permission,” Bender says. “They’re great because they’re okay with laughing at themselves. "That’s why the site survives, because we have people that are willing to say, ‘Hey, you think your family is awkward? Well, wait until you see mine!’ ”

The Awkward Family Photos exhibit is organized by family themes like Mom and Dad and The Grandparents and milestones such as Holidays, Birthdays, and Vacations. The photos range in size from 8-by-10 inches to as big as 20-by-24 inches, and they are displayed in kitschy frames from the 1950s,’60s and ’70s. “To me, the frames are almost as interesting as the photos because each frame has its own personality,” Bender says. “It is the perfect coupling of these awkward photos and these frames that really make you feel like this is how these pictures would look like if they were hung in somebody’s house.”

Brad Levin, vice president of The Levin Company, a frame manufacturing company in Compton, California, actually contacted Bender and Chernack months ago to see if there was a way they could collaborate, unaware that a museum exhibit was in the works. “Essentially, he said, ‘I have all of these awkward frames. You have all of these awkward photos. How can we work together?' I told him about the exhibit, and he donated all of these amazing frames,” Bender says, adding, “and The Levin Company is a family business, which makes it an even better story.”

[Images courtesy of Awkward Family Photos, California Heritage Museum]

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