Bondo Wyszpolski

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“The Big Squeeze” (2011), Kennewick, WA

Perfect Moments Gone Astray
“Awkward” at ESMoA opens today
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Without setting foot into a casino, Mike Bender and Doug Chernack hit the jackpot. The two friends, who went to high school together in New Jersey, are writing partners here in L.A., but their jackpot didn’t come through writing either.

“Double Vision” (1975), Abbotsford, BC, Canada

Here’s what happened.
At the home of Bender’s parents in Santa Barbara, Chernack had seen what he’s describing as an awkward vacation photo. “Why do my parents want to memorialize such a painful memory for me?” Bender had remarked.
“And I said to him,” Chernack recalls, sitting upstairs at ESMoA as the preview downstairs gets underway, “I have a lot of photos just like that around my house as well.
“At that moment,” he continues,” we just thought, well, if you have photos like that, and I have photos like that, maybe other people do as well.
“We love our family, but there are those moments that we’ve all been through, (in which) we don’t know why they don’t go exactly according to plan, but they do, and if there’s a photo about it that’s an ‘awkward family photo.’ So, let’s celebrate this moment. And that was the idea behind it.
“We put together ten photos, using friends’ and family photos that had been submitted to us.” These they posted on a rather simple website, Chernack says. “And then we got lucky.”
See, what did I tell you?

Overnight, the tree blossoms
Meanwhile, as Doug Chernack is explaining how Awkward Family Photos evolved, more than 200 people are mingling downstairs and being amused by the framed pictures on the walls of the rectangular gallery that is ESMoA.
“That was nine years ago,” Chernack continues. “We sent a link to friends and family, and one of our friends put the link on a radio station website. And that radio station website started spreading across the country with our link.”
People saw it, and shared it with other people.
“That’s how we started it,” Chernack says. “It’s a very unusual way to launch a digital website, but that was kind of the spark. We started getting submissions right away from around the world; we started getting press requests from the New York Times, Time magazine; and we started getting book proposals as well.
“Since we’ve started, we’ve had 250,000 pictures submitted to us.”
This ace reporter comments on how time-consuming it must be to go through them.
“It’s kind of the most fun part of the job,” Chernack replies, “because you never know what’s going to be in the inbox.”

“Black Hole Sun” (2003), Gainesville, FL

To the next level
Four years ago, a museum in Wisconsin contacted Bender and Chernack with a proposal to exhibit 40 of their awkward family photographs.
“We were really excited about the opportunity,” Chernack says, “but we were also nervous: Would this work? And then, What will be the response? But we did it, we went out to Wisconsin for the opening, and it got a great response. There was a huge amount of people, there was a photo booth and people were piling on top of each other; families of all ages were really into it.
“Mike and I were like, I think we’re on to something here. This might have legs.”
And sure enough…
“We had something very fortuitous happen,” he continues. “A framer from Los Angeles contacted us and said, ‘You guys have awkward photos, I have awkward frames. We should collaborate.’ And that helped us sort of envision what the exhibition could become. All of a sudden you’re framing in vintage frames from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, so it becomes more of a time capsule and more relatable for people. When they look at the photos they’re not just seeing a humorous image, they’re seeing a piece from maybe when they were kids. And so it just adds another layer to it.”

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Mike Bender and Doug Chernack at ESMoA last Saturday. Photo by Bondo Wyszpolski

Thematic awkwardness, no less
Wisconsin was the first, four years ago, and since then?
“We’ve been in 15 museums across the country,” Chernack says; “we’ve been in Canada. And it expands as it goes: We’re up to 210 photos, and in each of the photos we try to show a different aspect of family life. There’re photos focused on mom, photos focused on dad, pets, vacations, holidays; everything that someone can have some connection to, we’re looking for. That’s really a conscious effort on our part to try to make it a connected experience.”
And furthermore…
“The photos in the exhibition are from people all around the world. It’s not just the United States. There’re photos from Europe, the Far East, Latvia… So it’s a mix. We believe ‘awkward’ is universal, and we wanted to reflect that with what photos are being displayed.”
I’m reminded somewhat of the popular America’s Funniest Home Videos.
“Absolutely,” Chernack replies. “There’s a piece of nostalgia, there’s a piece of relatability, and we want it to be family friendly. We wanted just to show that slice of family that we all have but maybe we were not talking about, because we were like, ugh, that birthday was the worst birthday. What we’re trying to say is, ‘You think your family is awkward? Wait till you see my family!’ So we want to be very inclusive and celebratory. That’s the spirit of it.”
Downstairs, more people have crowded into the gallery. Mike Bender and Doug Chernack give their opening remarks as people press closer to listen to their story about how it all began, the story recounted above. Lady Luck smiled on them, just as each person moving from picture to picture smiles and comments on those images that take their fancy. The show is not quite what we’ve come to expect from ESMoA, but on the other hand if we’ve learned anything from their exhibitions it’s that we should always expect the unexpected.
Awkward officially opens at 1 p.m. today (Thursday) at ESMoA, 208 Main St., El Segundo. Hours, Thursday from 1 to 8 p.m., plus Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closes April 28. Free. (424) 277-1020 or go to ESMoA.org. ER

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