Santa Monica’s California Heritage Museum celebrates ‘Awkward Family Photos’

By Tyler Davidson

It can happen anywhere. School picture day. The prom. Holiday dinners. Hanging out with grandma in the backyard. A family reunion at the beach. Those moments carefully choreographed to look just perfect, worthy of preserving forever in a photograph, that instead turn out to be cringe-worthy, humiliating or just plain … awkward.

Five years ago, childhood friends Mike Bender and Doug Chernack started a blog inspired by a particularly embarrassing photo from a Bender family ski vacation still on the wall of his parents’ home. AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com quickly became the destination website for people to look back on some of history’s more unfortunate family snapshots and do the only thing anyone can about them: laugh.

“We set out from the beginning to create an inclusive, family-friendly blog, and I hope we’ve accomplished that,” said Chernack, a Santa Monica resident. “Our message is that we’re all awkward; we all have uncomfortable moments with our family — so let’s celebrate it.”

Earlier this year, Awkward Family Photos branched out from the web into a full-scale art exhibit at the California Heritage Museum, the historic 1894 Roy Jones house on Main Street in Santa Monica.

The result is a typhoon of bad taste. The wallpaper? Tacky. The frames? Hideous. The photos? Well, you already know … and hundreds of them for as far as the eye can see.

The exhibit, which launched in March, has brought record numbers of patrons into the small museum and has now been extended through Aug. 10.

There is something to be said of the exhibit’s design, a wonderfully gauche take on old-school Americana in keeping with its theme. Walk up the stairs and you’ll be greeted with the pièce de résistance right there in the stairwell: a family of five piled sideways atop one another, all dressed head-to-toe in nearly matching denim. Other photos are arranged in dreadfully gaudy frames according to theme. Parents, siblings, holidays — there’s even a niche carved out exclusively for patriotism, juxtaposing the Stars & Stripes with fingerless weightlifting gloves and firecracker costumes.

Visitors can also drop by a makeshift portrait study to create their own awkward photos with particularly unfashionable clothing and various ridiculous props.

The exhibit came about shortly after Bender and Chernack teamed up with L.A.-based marketing agency The Ant Farm for an ad campaign, when Ant Farm Director of Digital Strategy Angie Behm (who just happens to be on the California Heritage Museum Board of Directors) suggested an exhibit.

“Given that the subject matter is family, there’s something really appropriate about doing it in an actual house,” said Bender, a Hancock Park resident. “So we went in and sat down with them, it worked out, and they seemed very enthusiastic. The photos are hung as if they’d be hung in someone’s home.”

Some of the photos are new, while others are classics of the recently classified genre. There’s the group shot of three stone-faced toughs, showing off matching yin-yang bicep tattoos (dubbed “Cobra Kai”), a baby who appears just horrified by simultaneous kisses on the cheek by mom and dad (“The Kiss Off”), and a grandfather decked out in a “Hugs Not Drugs” T-shirt and boxing shorts, his face painted like a clown as he cradles a baby (“The Joker”).

In the age of social media, where snark is at a premium, it would be easy to begrudge the success of Awkward Family Photos as mean, even humiliating to its subjects. (“Am I the only one who sees this as hurtful to an individual?” bemoans one commenter. “It’s not nice to single a person out.”) But to do so is to miss the point. Unlike websites such as “People of Wal-Mart,” whose unwitting subjects have no control over their photos being surreptitiously snapped and uploaded, every photo posted online or framed on the museum wall by Awkward Family Photos is submitted either by the subjects themselves or a family member.

“We’re not making fun of people in any way,” says Bender. “Obviously, we’re having fun with the photos, but everybody that submits them, it’s in a very self-deprecating spirit.”

It’s a spirit that’s also contagious, with AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com surpassing a million views just days after it launched.

“I had a friend who worked for a radio station in Rhode Island, he put it on the radio station’s website, and it happened to be a Clear Channel radio station. It got picked up by all the other Clear Channel radio stations around the country, and so it took off in the span of a week,” says Bender.

“I vividly remember waking up one morning a few days after we launched and seeing on Google Analytics that we already had over a million  impressions for the day,” adds Chernack. “When I tried to get on the site, I wasn’t able to because the site was crashing from all of the traffic.”

These days, a million views in a month is routine.

In addition to filling three books’ worth of content, with a fourth on the way in the spring, Awkward Family Photos has been featured in media as diverse as “The Today Show” and the Al Jazeera network. In fall 2012, it had its own YouTube show in conjunction with Nerdist.com.

When the Santa Monica exhibit closes, Bender and Chernack intend to take their show on the road to museums throughout the country.

“I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t keep going,” says Bender. “[It’s] a cross-section of the country, via the photos from the exhibition. And we continue to get new photos, so we can kind of keep building it.”

The Awkward Family Photos exhibit is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays through Aug. 10 at the California Heritage Museum, 2612 Main St., Santa Monica. Tickets are $10, $5 for seniors or students and free for children under 12 years old. Call (310) 392-8537 or visit californiaheritagemuseum.org.