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California Heritage Museum hosts Awkward Family Photos exhibit

Awkward! Museum exhibit showcases the most embarrassing, cringe-worthy family portraits

Oh, the awkward family portrait. The hateful looks from quarreling siblings, the cranky baby who won't cooperate, the what-were-we-thinking fashions, or maybe just Mom midsneeze. Such ill-fated images are the stuff of a gloriously awkward exhibition running through July 27 at the California Heritage Museum in Santa Monica. (Check out my recent visit in the video above).

The show is an offshoot of the Awkward Family Photos website, which was created in 2009 and has evolved into an online phenomenon with more than 2 million Facebook likes, plus three books and a fourth due next spring. Co-founder Mike Bender got the idea after spotting a humiliating vacation photo hung in his parents' home.

"It started with my mother," Bender said with a smile, recalling a photo she put up in the house that showed Bender and his brother striking a Rockettes-like pose, one leg all-too-gracefully lifted off the ground. "I couldn't understand why she was memorializing this photo, which for me was very awkward."

The concept clicked, and fans started submitting their embarrassing photos to Bender and his Awkward Family Photos co-founder, childhood friend Doug Chernack. A suspect Santa with a black eye, kids stealthily flipping the bird, the ever-popular "ghost image" collage effect from the '70s and '80s — the museum exhibit includes 200 amusing examples, each with its own story and a frame donated by the Levin Co.

"While we were doing the website, we were contacted by a family framing company in Los Angeles who said, 'You guys have awkward pictures, I have awkward frames, and can we maybe do something together?'" Chernack said. The auspicious call came as Chernack and Bender happened to be putting the exhibit together. "We just thought, wow, this would be an incredible opportunity to take these frames from the '50s, '60s, '70s and '80s and add them to our photos [to] really give them an authentic homey feel."

That homey feel, Bender added, is what the exhibit is about — "the idea that we all have uncomfortable and awkward moments with our family."

Museumgoers can gawk and giggle at more than just photos. A video section of the exhibit showcases Bender's grandparents doling out advice in a memorable wedding toast.

Bender and Chernack plan to take the Awkward Family Photos exhibition on the road over the next two years to cities including San Francisco, New York, Chicago and Denver as well as smaller towns such as Geneva, Ill. The co-founders even hint at the possibility of an AFP reality show.

sarah.hashim-waris@latimes.com

Twitter: @sarahHwaris

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