Home Truths: Sally Stein on Gail Rebhan’s Family Sequences

Lill serves Mark another cup of coffee, 1985

Gail Rebhan grew up in a household with one parent a rising trade union organizer and the other a contented housewife. That relationship seemed quite complementary for its time. Yet the daughter, coming of age in a period of second-wave feminism, intended for her art to question the prevailing gender norms in the domestic patterns of her own generation. Rebhan’s sequences unfold at a measured pace, but the stops in this progression are attuned to a new feminist discourse sensitive to those pointed disparities that accorded more respect to men and their sense of rightful access to gainful employment and an equal claim to, as the old labor slogan insisted, “eight hours for what we will.”
Not only did Rebhan’s serial format lead me quickly to recall [Eadweard] Muybridge’s canonical studies of motion disaggregated—first of horses, later of men (and occasionally a few women and children)—but also Duane Michals’ contemporary sequential studies. Michals’ works are quite different for their narrative drive combined with the overt and covert desires of a gay male artist. Unlike Michals’ cleverly scripted and finely shaded monochrome imagery, Rebhan’s settings look more banal and are unrelieved by serendipity save for a jumpy cat. The cast of characters are more like the immediate family of soap opera or photonovellas. Yet unlike soap opera, the drama is tamped down as is the physical scale of the individual images. The component images are hardly bigger than snapshots or cartoon graphics. With reference to cartoons and comics, an early popular mass media genre for color in print that predates even much polychrome advertising, Rebhan’s use of color in Family Sequences arguably contributes a satiric rather than a celebratory cast to the family scenes. The hues, like the gestures, seem timeworn. Although color in advertising often lends a fashion-forward optimism to the merchandise on display, here the tints of clothing and decor remind us how quickly the color choice of the season starts looking old. There’s something decidedly stale in the mustard-colored shag rug in Lill’s apartment.


Lill serves Mark a cup of coffee, 1980

In the case of Rebhan’s work, what strikes me is just the opposite of theatrical gestures and emotions. Understatement is her trump card in depicting life as subject to repetition that may or may not be disappointing but either way is quite predictable. In her roles as wife, daughter-in-law, cousin to another woman recently married and starting to parent, and, a little later, mother herself, the photographer here adopts a tone that mixes attentiveness with critical distance. Take the treatment of Mark, her fairly new husband, who figures in many of these scenes. In several sequences, Mark appears as the prodigal “couch potato” being waited on by his widowed mother, while he relaxes before the stream of TV fare playing in Lill’s apartment. The photographer neither intervenes nor visibly remonstrates with her husband that he should let Lill rest and get his own cups of coffee. Is it a form of photo-sublimation that Gail seems to prefer playing the quiet observer, attaching later captions that sometimes hit a wry note while always avoiding overt judgment? I remain amazed by her mode of dispassionate, philosophical feminism. Maybe Rebhan recognizes that Lill serving her son gives the widow a sense of purpose and pleasure that reminds her of the way she also contributed to her late husband’s welfare. Perhaps Rebhan doesn’t intervene because she knows how ineffectual most outside intervention is in ingrained behaviors. She seems to prefer avoiding a fuss in favor of recording for posterity Mark enjoying his downtime, his Sunday fill of newspaper sections, his Olympics on TV, his mother waiting on him as a matter of habit.

Mark and Lill select a turkey, 1980

Let’s also acknowledge Mark’s cooperation as a performer. Many would not relish being studied so closely in ways that might demonstrate a privileged position. I’m thinking he accepts that his wife isn’t sharpening knives, trusting instead that her sense of measure as well as love will prevail. Take note that Gail’s series of Family Sequences also shows Mark helping his mother shop for groceries. In the case of a large turkey, he’s doing the heavy lifting from store case to cart.

Life unfolds in the most ordinary ways that would escape notice by most. But Rebhan tracks and briefly isolates the minor moments for what they may tell us about our social norms. One sequence shows cousin Ellen serving food that she seems to bring from the kitchen where she probably was also the cook. Another sequence leaves moot whether Ellen is also doing the post-meal cleanup while Alan is setting up the slide projector and Mark takes a seat to await the vacation slide show. Gail finds this division of labor important enough that she follows the guys for a closeup with camera facing the projector, leaving us to wonder about the other female’s whereabouts before the souvenirs get projected.

Younger cousins watch television, 1980

Consistent with her student video from a decade earlier, the media assume a significant role in many of these depicted interactions. In one sequence, she records kids on the carpet roughhousing with each other until the ever-changing TV offerings grab their attention when the broadcast program (or the advertising interval) zooms in on the bra (or bikini top) of a shapely female. Everyday life offers revelations for both immediate participants and second-hand observers of these segmented reruns.

Excerpted from the chapter ‘Early Series Studies of Everyday Minutiae’ from Gail Rebhan, About Time by Sally Stein.


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