EXHIBITIONS / Mann's family and other animals: All human life isn't there in the Barbican Gallery's dark new show of family photography

CURRENT TRENDS favour photographic exhibitions, and some of the best of have been presented at the Barbican Art Gallery. After Bruce Bernard's excellent 'All Human Life' comes 'Who's Looking at the Family?' - another large show but with a markedly different flavour.

The answer to the question in the exhibition's title is 'Val Williams'. Though she has selected the show with Carol Brown and Brigitte Lardinous, it is her thinking that is behind the display of some 30 British, European and American photographers. And you come away with the message that the family bond represents tyranny, loneliness, mayhem and despair.

It's almost a violent exhibition. The sense of potential disaster comes especially from the Americans. Four of them, all women, provide the show's most telling sections. Susan Lipper, Sally Mann, Tina Barney and Carrie Mae Weems are all significant photographers, and their work alone would make a visit essential. I wrote about Susan Lipper and her piercing documentary photographs in February. Seen in the present mixed company Lipper's prints are even more impressive. She knows how to convey a lot of information while keeping her images stark. By contrast, lots of other Barbican photographs fail because they are over-complicated.

This is the danger in Carrie Mae Weems's black-and-white prints of carefully posed scenes in (presumably) her own home, accompanied by excessively long captions. I like her work for its wise and amusing self-portraiture but am less beguiled by all the props, which include a gentleman friend, or whatever the correct phrase might be, and the photographer's daughter. There are two sequences. In the first she gives this chap a special supper and they do a bit of boozing. In the second she helps her daughter with homework - at the same table, now cleared of its adult mess. Innocence and experience; black people's lives and aspirations; the differing roles of a single mother: these are the themes, and good ones too, but they are too much wrapped up in staged scenarios.

Sally Mann already has a reputation on this side of the Atlantic, but has not shown in a British gallery. This exhibition will make her famous. Visitors should prepare to be disturbed. I have never seen photographs with such a weird and uncanny attitude to portraiture. We all assume that the people we know best are our children, for we have nurtured them and watched over them in countless ways. Mann's pictures of her own three children suggest the horror that this assumption might not be true. Her children are both happily in the parental home, therefore understandable and lovable, and simultaneously in a state of nature - non-human nature, and possibly demonic.

This suspicion is just as unsettling as the nakedness and closeness to paedophilic photography that have got Mann into trouble with various censors. And it's worth considering how American she is. First, Mann (born 1953) shoots her children as though the roots of all life had been planted by the Woodstock generation. Secondly, as she blurs the differences between childhood and pubescence, Mann hints that American childhood is now disappearing, or at least is drastically abbreviated. Finally, with all this nakedness on the porch and in the meadows, Mann contrives to negate the mythical innocence of American rural life once celebrated by Whitman and Thoreau. Her photographs are affected less by pornography than by photos of the Vietnam period, with their emphasis on filth, uselessness and defoliation.

I don't interpret Mann's photos as being about the family per se: surely they are about the condition of being American? This is not to ignore their slimy daring (what would we think if these photos had been taken by a man?), rather to emphasise that she is as much imprisoned by her nationality as by her children. She's like many previous American photographers, who look for iconic images of life in the US and use youth as a symbol of progress. The difference is that Mann has no faith in progress whatsoever.

Technically, she's rather conservative. Mann works with an 8 x 10in view camera, is meticulous in the darkroom and acknowledges the influence of a number of classic photographers. Some of her prints even have a 19th-century way with chiaroscuro. Here she contrasts with a newer wave of photographers. It's not surprising that camerawork in the US should be influenced by the movies. Now we find that Tina Barney, another artist highly regarded in New York, has been affected not only by film but by television soap operas. Before each of Barney's prints I felt that I had hit upon some episode from a fatuous and long-running saga. Her photographs seem to have been rehearsed as well as staged. It's quite possible to enjoy the artifice and unreality of Barney's work. But I question whether she is really a social critic, or indeed a fully creative photographer. Her style relies too much on stratagem and already, like so many post-modernists who made it in the Eighties, she's beginning to look dated.

An English version of Barney's way with drama and multi-figure composition is provided by Nick Waplington, who for some years has been photographing the tenants of a Nottingham council house. He says he doesn't want to make 'a big set of morals' or any kind of statement. On the other hand he proudly says that his subjects are 'fighting back' and that he doesn't want to portray them as victims of society. Hence the special rowdiness of his photographs, itself a form of eloquence, and the feeling that, as artist and man, he cares nothing for decorum. And yet decorum does creep into his photographs, like an uninvited middle-class guest at one of the shambolic parties he loves to portray. But is there still an English disease that makes us prefer childlike puppets to people? Doug Luke ridiculously inserts toy figures into the real world, just as in his better-known work on Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet.

Waplington's decorum is simply the instinct for artistic order. Photography reminds us that an instinct for art can come up anywhere. So compare Waplington's prints with those of a police photographer, John Heatley. Here are the pictures he took in a house after a murder. The intention was purely functional, to make a record of the corpse in its surroundings, a commonplace family home in Preston. But Heatley couldn't do it without a certain amount of aestheticism. And, as so often, the neutral and stand-offish camera works its way into cupboards and corners, as though pulled by invisible beckoning toward the secrets of other people's lives.

The dead man had been killed by his daughters, whom he had abused since their earliest years. Williams has done well to get hold of the family photographs, which include pathetically ordinary school pictures. The section devoted to the girls and their father is only one of a number of coups de theatre in this carefully chosen and oddly formal exhibition. It's all very impressive, but in the end I preferred 'All Human Life'. That was about photojournalism. It wasn't argumentative but its thrust was that life got better for most people after Hitler's war. Williams surely believes that her favoured photographers prove how bad the world now is. It is bad, yet the family is not to blame. My truisms are that double beds are better than singles, that children are delightful and mainly delight their parents, that you can have great talks at shared meals and that there's nothing like the fun of going on holiday together. So if I were a photographer I doubt whether Williams would even consider me for her exhibition.

Barbican Gallery, EC2 (071-588 9023) to 4 Sept.

(Photographs omitted)