Friday, February 17, 2017

The Family of Man

There was a famous exhibition of photography called The Family of Man at the NY MOMA in 1955. Edward Steichen curated it. You've heard of it, probably seen some pictures from it, and you know that it was a hugely influential and "important" exhibition. You probably know that it went on around the world for a few years, and if you're really tuned in you know that it currently resides in Luxembourg.

What I did not know is that there was a book. Well, of course there was, wasn't there? There always is. It simply never occurred to me.

I happened across this thing while visiting some of my wife's friends, and had the opportunity to spend a couple of mornings with the book.

What a staggering monument! Holy cow. Especially for 1955 America.

It's a brilliant and powerful piece of work. The intention was to show that humans are far more alike than we are different, a theme I am currently plugging. It succeeds, astonishingly well for a body of work pulled together in the 1950s. We see people of various cultures and ethnicitys, and it is inescapable that we all show fear, hunger, joy, love, in much the same ways. Our relationships within our families, within our communities, all have roughly the same shape.

At the same time, the collection doesn't pretend that we're identical. We look different, we dress differently. In some ways we indeed express emotions a little differently. Still, it is clear that as you mentally strip away the details of clothing, skin color, variation in cultural themes, we are all at the core basically the same. One couple kisses passionately, another demurely, but the essentials of love are the same. One child's face screws up in fear or hunger, another endures stoically, but the hunger or fear is much the same. The tasks vary from one place to another, but a gang of men working together looks much the same whether they are laying train tracks in Canada or pulling fishing nets in Asia.

We are all different, and yet we are all much the same, and the sameness is far more essential, far more basic, than the differences.

This is important. This is a message that photography is uniquely suited to deliver.

The book isn't perfect. Western, white, people are far more generously represented than are people with more pigment in their skin. Of course they are, it can't be helped. You can tell that Steichen and his team struggled to get as much breadth as possible, and fell short of the ideal. Africa, for instance, vast Africa, is represented largely by a single nation and a single photographer, with a smattering of a few pictures from here and there. Asia, even vaster, fares slightly better, but is still short-changed. America, little America, gets the lion's share of the pictures. So it goes. There's still enough there to get the idea. One could argue that it's better, for us westerners, this way. The relatively rare photograph from far off lands jumps out, surprises us a little, invites investigation.

A Nigerian might justifiably find it a tedious litany of white American-ness.

The technical details of the book are not particularly special. The printing process has that weird shiny look in the blacks when angled to the light just so, some specularity there. The paper is thin. The tonal range is pretty flat. None of that matters, because this is a book of content, not of form. It contains photographs from giants of the field, and from nobodies. It has minor work from giants, and remarkable work from people you've never heard of.

If you get a chance, look at a copy. Perhaps your library has a copy, perhaps there's one for sale in a local bookstore. Worth a look.


  1. I've always been a fan of the exhibit and the book. Yes, I'm old enough to have seen the exhibit in NYC. You don't seem to be aware of how much crap Steichen and the exhibit have and still are receiving
    from the world of the 'very serious and important' art photography community.

    1. I am not, particularly. I have a notion that it was controversial in its day, although I seem to recall it was one of the most well attended MOMA exhibitions ever?

      I can certainly imagine that a lot of people hated it for a lot of rather seedy reasons which they may have been unwilling to discuss openly.

  2. Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves.
    Brendan Behan (1923-1964)