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Thursday, 08 July 2010

Worth a Closer Look

AwkwardFamilyPhotos.com

Awkward Family Photos
(Purchase)

From squabbling siblings to creepy Easter bunnies, a new book celebrates the awkward family photo

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They say you can't judge a book by its cover—but for the new paperback by Doug Chernack '96, it's a fairly good barometer. The book is called Awkward Family Photos, and the title pretty much says it all. Then there's the cover image: a five-member clan, all clad in denim shirts and jeans, lying face-down atop one another in a goofy seaside pyramid. They're trying to look happy and casual; instead they just seem extraordinarily silly, and more than a little unhinged.

That's the general tone of the book, co-authored by Chernack and Mike Bender and published by Three Rivers Press in May—when it debuted at number three in its category on the New York Times bestseller list. It's based on the eponymous website, which the L.A.-based comedy writers launched about a year ago to near-instant acclaim following a serendipitous plug on national radio. "We started with a couple of hits the first day, and by the fourth or fifth day we had over 2 million," says Chernack, a former American studies major who got his start in reality TV with shows like "Star Dates" on the E! network. "We were completely unprepared for it—the site was crashing—and we were approached by publishers in the first week. It totally blew us away."

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Suitable for framing: Images from Bender and Chernack's book include "The Kiss Off" (left) and "Punks in Space" (right).
 

They got the idea for AwkwardFamily Photos.com when Bender came back from a visit to his parents' house and mentioned a cringe-worthy image they had on display; Chernack realized that, for better or worse, his own family had produced a few contributions to the genre. "We wanted to make a fun environment," Chernack says, "where people could submit their most uncomfortable photos and have a good time with it." Now they get about 15 million hits each month from more than 3 million unique visitors, with 200 to 250 photo submissions coming in daily from around the world. Chernack and Bender, who are working on action-comedy screenplays for New Line and Warner Brothers ("one set in the LAPD, the other in the CIA"), had to hire an employee to help them vet the images and comments; they want the content to stay PG-rated. "The intention of the site is, 'We're all awkward,' " Chernack says. "When we post these photos, there's a comfort level of, 'My family's not the only one that makes me do this.' It's a bit cathartic."

Of the book's roughly 300 images, a third are "greatest hits" from the site; the rest are shots that have never been seen before—at least outside the respective subjects' living rooms. They're divided into such sections as family portraits (for example, a shot of an extended clan in which everyone except the baby is brandishing a hand-held vacuum); pets (mom, dad, brother, and sister lying on the floor with their heads together, a giant snake wound around their necks); weddings (a large bridal party posed on the Enterprise bridge in full "Star Trek" regalia); and holidays (a dozen people wearing plush turkey hats, the legs dangling like Pippi Longstocking's braids). A four-photo spread is devoted to the Easter Bunny, who consistently comes off as either malevolent or insane. "Once we post a photo, it opens the floodgates to others of the same type," Chernack muses. "We never realized how scary the Easter Bunny was. We were always creeped out by the mall Santa, but we realized the giant Easter Bunny is ten times scarier."

So what are the makings of the consummate awkward family photo? Classic elements include matching outfits and forced poses—like the pile-on from the cover, arrangements of family members lined up by size like the Von Trapp singers, or shots in which everyone is gingerly straddling a tree limb or fence rail. "You've got your matching outfits," Chernack observes, "and you've got denim. For some reason, people love denim." Then there are the excruciating vacation shots, "where you can tell mom or dad wanted the kids to look their happiest, or pose in front of a statue or something, and you know there's a certain level of discomfort. Sometimes you can see a dynamic between the family members— they're trying to project the perfect image, yet the photo reveals something different. Maybe there's a brother-sister conflict or a mother-daughter conflict. That comes out a lot."

Case in point: Chernack's author photo, circa mid-Eighties, in which he and his brother stand stiffly on the grass in front of their parents. Both boys are wearing white "short shorts," with Chernack in a striped polo and his brother in a Billy Joel T-shirt. "I remember it well," Chernack recalls. "I had just gotten into a huge fight with my brother, and my parents forced us to stand next to each other and look happy. So for me it was fitting to put that photo in. Before we could have our picture taken, my brother and I had to be split up and yelled at."

Chernack's relatives show up elsewhere in the book as well; his brother can be seen on page 58, wearing an orthodontic headgear as he sits cross-legged, surrounded by Legos. And as for that family wearing the matching turkey hats? They're Chernack's in-laws.

— Beth Saulnier

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