The Family of Man

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Migrant Mother (1936), Dorothea Lange

The Family of Man was an ambitious[1] photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, the director of the Museum of Modern Art's (MOMA) Department of Photography. It was first shown in 1955 from January 24 to May 8 at the New York MOMA. Steichen’s international collection of images, included his focused tour of 11 European countries including France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.[2] In total, Steichen procured 300 images from European photographers which were first organized into the Post-War European Photography exhibition on display at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953.[2] Due to the incorporation of this body of work into the 1955 The Family of Man exhibition, Post-War European Photography is thought of as a preview to The History of Man.[2] The international tour of latter 1955 exhibition was sponsored by United States Information Agency, a governmental agency concerned with international diplomacy.[2]

According to Steichen, the exhibition represented the "culmination of his career." The exhibition was a feat, containing 503 photos from 68 countries which represented 273 photographers (163 Americans[3]) were selected from almost 2 million pictures submitted by famous and unknown photographers.[4] These photos are grouped thematically to offer striking snapshots of the human experience: they linger on birth, love, and joy but also touch on war, privation, illness, and death. Steichen's intention was to prove, visually, the universality of human experience and photography's role in its documentation.

The exhibit was turned into a book of the same name, containing all 503 images from the exhibition and an introduction by Carl Sandburg, the 1951 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and Steichen’s brother-in-law. Sandburg states in the prologue of the exhibition: “The first cry of a baby in Chicago, or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same pitch and key, each saying, “I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the Family. Many the babies and grownup here from photographs made in sixty-eight nations round our planet Earth. You travel and see what the camera saw. The wonder of human mind, heart wit and instinct is here. You might catch yourself saying, ‘I’m not a stranger here.’ ” [5]

The book was reproduced in a variety of formats (most popularly a pocket-sized volume) in the 1950s, and reprinted in large format for its 40th anniversary. The book version of the exhibit has sold more than four million copies.

After its initial showing at The Museum of Modern Art in 1955, the exhibition toured the world for eight years, making stops in thirty-seven countries on six continents. More than 9 million people viewed the exhibit. The physical collection was displayed at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg. It was first presented in 1994 but as of Sep 2010 it is closed for renovation purposes. In 2003 the Family of Man photographic collection was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in recognition of its historical value.[6]

The Family of Man as U.S. cultural diplomacy[edit]

The photographs included in the exhibition focus on the commonalities that bind people and cultures around the world and the exhibition itself served as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II.[7]

The Family of Man circulated internationally under the auspices of the The Museum of Modern Art International Program, founded in 1952 to develop and tour circulating exhibitions, including United States Representations at international exhibitions and festivals, one-person shows, and group exhibitions. Since the founding of the International Program, MoMA exhibitions have had hundreds of showings around the world.[7]

The collection's overtones of peace and human brotherhood symbolized a lifting of the overhanging danger of an atomic war for Soviet citizens.[8] This meaning seemed to be grasped especially by Russians students and intellectuals.[8]

Experiencing the Society behind the Family of Man[edit]

“There is only one man in the world and his name is All Men. There is only one women in the world and her name is All Women. There is only one child in the world and the child’s name is All Children.”

People! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers. Here are ironworkers, bridge men, musicians, sandhogs, miners, builders of huts and skyscrapers, jungle hunters, landlords, and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate — one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being. Everywhere is love and love-making, weddings and babies from generation to generation keeping the Family of Man alive and continuing.

If the human face is “the masterpiece of God” it is here then in a thousand fateful registrations. Often the faces speak that words can never say. Some tell of eternity and others only the latest tattings. Child faces of blossom smiles or mouths of hunger are followed by homely faces of majesty carved and worn by love, prayer and hope, along with others light and carefree as thistledown in a late summer wing. Faces have land and sea on them, faces honest as the morning sun flooding a clean kitchen with light, faces crooked and lost and wondering where to go this afternoon or tomorrow morning. Faces in crowds, laughing and windblown leaf faces, profiles in an instant of agony, mouths in a dumbshow mockery lacking speech, faces of music in gay song or a twist of pain, a hate ready to kill, or calm and ready-for-death faces. Some of them are worth a long look now and deep contemplation later.


The layout of the Family of Man exhibition aimed to enable the visitor to read this as a photo-essay about human development and cycles of life. Images were grouped together according to diverse themes. The headings ranged from lovers, to childbirth, to household, and careers, then to the death and finally, full cycle, back to children in the end. Photos were chosen according to their capacity to communicate a story, or a feeling, that contributed to the overarching narrative. Each grouping of images builds upon the next, creating a more complex story of humanity.

The permanent installation of the exhibition today at Chateau Clervaux in Luxembourg follows the layout of the original exhibition at MoMA in order to recreate the original viewing experience.


  1. ^ The Family of Man is "one of the most ambitious and challenging projects, photography has ever attempted. It was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and cmotions in the everydayness of life and demonstrates that the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man". Steichen quoted in United States. American Embassy. Office of Public Affairs; University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (1956), Visitors' reactions to the "Family of man" exhibit, American Embassy, Office of Public Affairs, retrieved 19 October 2014 
  2. ^ a b c d Gresh, Kristen. 2005. “The European Roots of 'The Family of Man' ”. History of Photography 29, (4): 331-343
  3. ^ Jay, Bill (1989) "The Family of Man A Reappraisal of 'The Greatest Exhibition of All Time'. Insight, Bristol Workshops in Photography, Rhode Island, Number 1, 1989.
  4. ^ Luxembourg Tourist Office
  5. ^ Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man: The greatest photographic exhibition of all time—503 pictures from 68 countries—created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. New York, Maco Magazine Corporation, 1955.
  6. ^ "Family of Man". UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2009-12-14. 
  7. ^ a b "Edward Steichen at The Family of Man, 1955". MoMA. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  8. ^ a b White, Ralph K. (Winter 1959). "Reactions to Our Moscow Exhibit: Voting Machines and Comment Books". The Public Opinion Quarterly. 4 23: 461–470. doi:10.1086/266900. 
  • Gresh, Kristen. 2005. “The European Roots of 'The Family of Man' ”. History of Photography 29, (4): 331-343.
  • Steichen, Edward (2003) [1955]. The Family of Man. New York: The Museum of Modern Art. ISBN 0-87070-341-2
  • Sandeen, Eric J. Picturing An Exhibition: The Family of Man and 1950s America. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.



External links[edit]


  1. ^ Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man: The greatest photographic exhibition of all time—503 pictures from 68 countries—created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art. New York, Maco Magazine Corporation, 1955.