Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man” exhibition

a colourful symbol that appears on the book cover and at the end of the exhibition

a colourful symbol that appears on the book cover and at the end of the exhibition

 

BEFORE

It feels a litle strange to be visiting an exhibition that was first opened to the public in 1955. “The Family of Man” was launched at the MOMA in New York which later travelled around the world, being seen by millions of people. Interestingly, one can still see it today in Luxembourg where the gallery has recently been refurbished; I wonder if the latest version differs from the initial one and if so in what way.

The exhibition of “The Family of Man” was considered landmark for different reasons. No such exhibition had been attempted before, an exhibition that encompassed the globe in subject matter and discussed humanity at large, revealing the potential of photography yet also, as critics have pointed out, demeaning photography by making it a conveyor of information rather than an art in its’ own right wherein the wider intention of the photographer is recognised.

a photo used more than once in the exhibition that also appears on the cover of the catalogue

a photo used more than once in the exhibition that also appears on the cover of the catalogue

It is not easy for me to comment at the present time since although I have looked through the book which is a catalogue of the exhibition and has itself sold millions, I am yet to see the exhibition itself. However, looking at the photograph on the cover of The Family of Man book, I find myself reading it in a way that is far from complimentary. There are two smiling children in this black and white subtly sepia toned photograph which was taken by Eugene Harris; the caption “Popular Photography” tells us nothing about the content of the image other than it appeared in a magazine of that name. Yet one might guess that it was taken in South America because the children are dressed in a particular way as well as holding an instrument, a bamboo pipe, that one finds in that part of the world. (In the exhibition, there is a quote underneath the picture that references the Pueblo Indians who are actually from the South West of North America). One appears to play upon a pipe yet the smiling lips and eyes suggest otherwise as does the grinning face in the background. The situation here seems to be of a photographer from outside the community who has come across a couple of poor children whom he wishes to represent in a particular light, in which the message “poor but happy” is encoded, just the kind of platitude that will satisfy the mostly rich people who will view this image. The idea then is of a false humanity, one that exists in the minds of those who would like it to be that particular way. One can not help but recall the excesses of the “American Dream” and its’ readiness to promote an exaggerated experience of happiness as often pictured in advertising. There is of course much more to this exhibition that a single image and most of the photographs don’t appear to be so contrived.

The exhibition space in Luxembourg is a reconstruction of the original MOMA exhibition space that had been designed by an architect

The exhibition space in Luxembourg is a reconstruction of the original MOMA exhibition space that had been designed by an architect

One interesting aspect is the way the viewing space was originally designed by an architect yet I wait to see if this has been done in the same way in Luxembourg. Certainly, one expects to see an elaborate arrangement of photographs. Writing in Aperture magazine at the time, Barbara Morgan contributed a piece entitled “The theme show: a contemporary exhibition technique” in which she described the method of presenting the photographs which at the time was developing although nowadays might be considered standard practice. Referring to both the cinema with its’ rapid show of still photographs and the book where one can sift through photographs at ones’ own place … “Here pictures are still and the viewers pass before them. Yet this beggars the case, for scale and arrangement give illusion of movement: large pictures seeming to advance, the small to retreat; grouping of several photographs into small constellations build up a meaning, and as the spectator grasps the meaning of one group he can relate it to the meaning of other constellations. This interplay gives the sense of movement to his mind. Like voices of a fugue, one thematic group can answer another group. Continuing the comparison to music, layout can produce a kind of orchestration, and this orchestration can be richly enjoyed by those accustomed to relating groups of photographs, both as to meaning and their elements of form such as line, tone values, lighting – and texture.”

One starts to get a sense of the enormous vision of this exhibition when one considers that from over 2,000,000 photographs submitted, some 10,000 photographs were selected and from these, 503 photographs from 68 countries by 273 photographers, both male and female, professional and amateur. The selection process in itself represents a considerable achievement!

Another interesting touch to this exhibition is the use of literary quotes from around the world; hence, we read wise words from the Chinese sage Lao-Tzu as well as by Plato, the Greek philosopher with authors such as James Joyce being quoted making this exhibition a combination of artistic expressions. Dorothy Norman who was responsible for the captioning wrote in Aperture magazine, “I found that in choosing captions, the great and universal words of the great writers of all times were applicable to the various panels having to do with creation, birth, love, work, death, justice, the search for knowledge, relationships – both personal and seemingly impersonal – democracy, peace, opposition to brutality and slaughter – to all of the basic themes with which the exhibition is concerned.”

For Norman, she “respected enormously the “idea” on which the exhibition was based, and the passion with which Steichen “lived” what he was attempting to create all day, and far into the night, selflessly, devotedly.”

This is perhaps enough now from myself who has yet to see the exhibition and does not want to prejudge it. Yet a certain amount of research beforehand can help one to see so much more of an exhibition that might be viewed more than once. I am expecting to do a morning and an afternoon visit tomorrow although my friends may have other plans. There might of course be more literature to consume on the subject of “The Family of Man” since mine only comes from the introduction to the catalogue and a few articles from Aperture Magazine at the time. What for instance, would be a post-modern understanding of this exhibition?

AFTER

It would have been a mistake to have written about this exhibition without actually seeing it. The way it has been presented in the gallery is important and one needs to experience this as a physical space. Hence, I found myself in the company of two friends with whom I made the journey to Clervaux Castle in the European state of Luxembourg where the exhibition has been enshrined.

On the journey there, we had a heated discussion about colonialism and on the way back, another about religion, in particular Christianity and Buddhism. I shan’t go into the various arguements that were put forth but I could not help but feel they were partly inspired by The Family of Man exhibition which does make one consider the way the world is, even though nearly 70 years has passed since it was first exhibited.

children play on a tank in the grounds of Clervaux Castle which was destroyed during World War 2 since when it has been rebuilt

children play on a tank in the grounds of Clervaux Castle which was destroyed during World War 2 since when it has been rebuilt

Edward Steichen was American but his native country was Luxembourg and so by mummifying The Family of Man exhibition in his homeland, he was paying a debt of gratitude. However, there is surely a more poignant reason for the exhibition being situated here since the area lies between Germany and France in the Ardennes and there was bitter fighting here during the Second World War, particularly in the Battle of the Bulge. The castle itself was destroyed and the present building is a reconstruction of that. Looking around the village, one sees that it must have also been levelled by warfare since the architecture is almost entirely modern. Even the “Bistro 1865”, in the centre of the town, where we eat lunch before seeing the exhibition, looks modern and is perhaps a deliberate attempt to give a sense of history to this settlement.

blog author, Amano, with Tibetan friend, Palyang at the entrance to the exhibition

blog author, Amano, with Tibetan friend, Palyang at the entrance to the exhibition

We walked up to the castle and into its’ interior where we were able to buy tickets to see the exhibition; these came with a mini iPad that did not talk so much about the individual photographs rather the context of the exhibition. This was helpful but one can not forget that this exhibition is made up of a lot of great photographs, many of which can stand alone; their inclusion in the exhibition is perhaps to demean their worth yet this exhibition was not created to massage artists’ egos rather to make a statement of universal importance.

According to Carl Sandburg, it is the “Story of what it means to be and become human.” The exhibition avoids anti-war rhetoric although the planet was only just begining to recover from the Second World War and all the suffering that had brought in its’ wake. The idea that man is as one, woman is as one and child is as one, is perhaps not just an over-simplification but a misunderstanding of the need for individuality.

There are a number of quotes from The Holy Bible which helps to give a more universal feeling to the message of the exhibition. These include quotes from Genesis and although the Bhagavad Gita is also referenced, one can not help but sense a Judaeo-Christian limitation to the vision. There has been criticism of the political nature of the project. Might this exhibition be seen as American imperialism? One could ask similar questions about the role of the United Nations today. For many, millions in fact, there is the possibility of seeing beyond inevitable limitations to the bigger picture this exhibition presents. A simple question this exhibition asks is “What does it means to be human?” Nowadays, the literature of countries from around the world is available at the click of a button; in the 1950s there was much less understanding of the way people from more distant countries thought. However, one can not help but see this exhibition as propraganda; it was certainly used as such particularly during the Cold War with a particularly long stay in Moscow.

photographs of families, a central part of the exhibition

photographs of families, a central part of the exhibition

This exhibition also made a statement about photography with its’ role as a universal language being convincingly demonstrated. Although Steichen was accused of being more an editor than a curator, his use of modern techniques of exhibiting photographs is quite remarkable even by todays’ standards. He does not ask the viewer to work around a series of images, one by one, but to see them as part of a whole; of course, this was another blow to some who saw photography as art and wanted to it to be venerated as such in a traditional way. Steichen in creating a layout for the images was determining both the frame and size of photographs as well as sequencing them to tell a story not so much in a linear fashion with a straightforward storyline but as a story that inter-connected in different ways. For instance, there was a central stand of photographs in one room showing different families from around the world; from this central theme of “The Family of Man” there radiate other story lines.

Interestingly, the context of images is not given; there are no captions describing the content of the image rather merely titles that mention the name of the photographer and the source of the photograph such as the agency that supplied it. This absence of contextualisation allows the meaning to rest in the eye of the beholder. Steichen was responding to mass interest rather than the, by then, established art of photography. His editorial approach was contemporary and while the absence of captions might have disturbed some, it does lend a timelessness to the exhibition and is one reason why it still survives to this day.

Of the exhibition, Steichen wrote that ” … instead of making pretty pictures or technically perfect pictures, we are going out to get life” and further, “On the one side, we overintellectuallise everything; on the other, we are overmechanised. We can understand the danger of the atom bomb, but the danger of our misunderstanding the meaning of life is much more serious.” These quotations are from a series of interviews with different people that are found in “Wisdom: Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of Our Day” edited by James Nelson, (New York, 1958)

Further, for Steichen the exhibition was to reveal the experience of life with “a positive approach toward human attributes” using the revelatory approach of photography that shows life behind the surface of things; it was a conscious choice to generalise the human condition. Steichen was above all concerned with what we have in common rather than our differences.

This photograph by Eugene Smith remains one of my favourite photographs; it came at the end of the exhibition

This photograph by Eugene Smith remains one of my favourite photographs; it came at the end of the exhibition

Although the contemporary photographer and critic, Minor White who was editor of the influential Aperture magazine, was later to describe the exhibition as “schmaltz”, he did recognise that “Some of it … was really magnificent aesthetically.”

With the passing of time, the exhibition has lost specific historical references intended by Steichen yet is still ” a deply moving experience for many of the 9 million viewers worldwide” (now many more than 9 million and still growing) even if it is guilty of “sentimental humanism”.

One might of course, merely see the exhibition in terms of the images ii shows and there are some great ones here including one of my favoutites. This shows a couple of children, a young girl and a slightly older boy, presumably her brother, emerging from the shelter of vegetation and into sunlight; interestingly, this famous image by Eugene Smith has been shot from behind so we do not see the children’s faces rather our attention is focused on their togertheness. They are perhaps emerging from the womb of chilhood suggested by the undergrowth into the reality of life. For me the image has personal references yet the universality of the images’ connotation is something many can surely relate to. This is the final image of the show yet it could have been one of the first; it mirrors the viewers’ passage through the protective space the many images are shown in, and the viewers’ return to the everyday world where the message of The Family of Man is still a relevant one.

another view of the reconstructed exhibition space

another view of the reconstructed exhibition space

It is difficult to make general statements about this exhibition; so much has already been said and there are so many different elements to consider. I do find it a little optimistic, a reaction to the horror of the war years perhaps; I don’t see that humanity will ever be a family and a reading of Freud and his successors would surely be enough to convince one that this might not be desirable. There can neither be a religion of man or a commune of man yet humanity does have so much in common and this exhibition succeeds in communicating that. The poetry of the imagery aided by significant quotes further strengthens the case put forward by photography and in spite of political undertones as well as a rather heavy handed approach to the art of photography, it would surely be a mistake to dismiss a body of work like this that has reached millions.

Personally, I find it a refreshing approach in todays’ atmosphere of art photography in which meanings are often difficult to elucidate and audiences consequently much smaller.

Hans Craen looks at photographs in The Family

Hans Craen looks at photographs in The Family

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Family of Man catalogue

More recent criticism – Family of Man 1955-2001: Humanism and Postmodernism: A Reappraisal of the Photo Exhibition by Edward Steichen (various authors)

Aperture Anthology

Picturing an Exhibition : Family of Man and 1950s America

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One thought on “Edward Steichen’s “The Family of Man” exhibition

  1. Thank you for your many insights into the Luxembourg resting place of this famous show – it is a landmark in the history of photography and certainly, like so many others, a turning point in my own life as a photographer. Since I will never have the opportunity to visit Luxembourg I appreciate your direct and sensitive writing and photographs . I look forward to reading your other posts.
    Best Regards,
    James

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