Talk:The Family of Man

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Reactions to Family of Man[edit]

A section on reactions (maybe better titled 'Reception'?) to this landmark exhibition has been started by User:Gavbad73 who has noted Roland Barthes as the most frequently cited early commentator. After seeing the exhibition in Paris in 1956, he declared it to be a product of “classic humanism,” a collection of photographs in which everyone lives and “dies everywhere in the same way.” “[T]o reproduce death or birth tells us, literally, nothing,”

There have been numbers more reactions both positive and negative worthy of note, for both social/cultural studies and art historical/aesthetic interpretation. I am preparing such a section which will summarise positions of the exhibition's major critics and advocates through its history.

The earliest critics of the show were photographers, who felt that Steichen had submerged individual talent and set back the acceptance of photography as art.

Walker Evans disdained its “human familyhood [and] bogus heartfeeling” (Walker Evans, “Robert Frank,” US Camera 1958 (New York: US Camera Publishing Corporation, 1957), 90.)

Phoebe Lou Adams complained: “If Mr. Steichen’s well-intentioned spell doesn’t work, it can only be because he has been so intent on [Mankind's] physical similarities that...he has utterly forgotten that a family quarrel can be as fierce as any other kind.” Phoebe Lou Adams, “Through a Lens Darkly.” Atlantic Monthly, no. 195 (April 1955), p. 72

Criticism included Steichen’s transposition of the photo-essay from magazine page to museum wall. Journalist Russell Lynes’s in 1973 wrote FoM “was a vast photo-essay, a literary formula basically, with much of the emotional and visual quality provided by sheer bigness of the blow-ups and its rather sententious message sharpened by juxtaposition of opposites — wheat-fields and landscapes of boulders, peasants and patricians, a sort of ‘look at all these nice folks in all these strange places who belong to this family.’ ” (Russell Lynes, Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 325.)

Critics have attacked the show as a species of American mythology (Roland Barthes), an attempt to paper over problems of race and class (Christopher Phillips, John Berger, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau), and even an act of aesthetic colonialism (Allan Sekula).

Exceptions to the critical responses to the exhibition which take account of the political and cultural context in which the show appeared, come from Eric J. Sandeen, Picturing an Exhibition: “The Family of Man” and 1950s America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995) and Blake Stimson, The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).

Other useful references: Roland Barthes, “La grande famille des hommes” (“The Great Family of Man”), in Mythologies (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1957), 173–76; English translation edition: Roland Barthes, “The Great Family of Man,” Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers (St Albans, Hertfordshire: Picador, 1976), 100-102.

Christopher Phillips, “The Judgment Seat of Photography,” October, no. 22 (1982): 27–63; John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980);

Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “‘The Family of Man’: Den Humanismus für ein postmodernes Zeitalter aufpolieren” (“‘The Family of Man’: Refurbishing Humanism for a Postmodern Age”), in “The Family of Man,” 1955–2001: Humanismus und Postmoderne; eine Revision von Edward Steichens Fotoausstellung (“The Family of Man,” 1955–2001: Humanism and Postmodernism; a Reappraisal of the Photo Exhibition by Edward Steichen), ed. Jean Back and Viktoria Schmidt- Linsenhoff (Marburg, Germany: Jonas, 2004), 28–55;

Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” Art Journal 41, no. 1 (1981): 15–21. For a summary and analysis of critical responses to the show to 1999, see Monique Berlier, “The Family of Man: Readings of an Exhibition,” in Picturing the Past: Media, History, and Photography, ed. Bonnie Brennan and Hanno Hardt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 206–41.

For a recent collection of essays on related themes, see Back and Schmidt-Linsenhoff, “The Family of Man,” 1955 – 2001.

Kristen Gresh, ‘The European Roots of The Family of Man’, The History of Photography Special Issue on the Family of Man, vol. 29, no.4, Winter 2005, pp. 331–43, and Sandeen, ‘The International Reception of The Family of Man’ in the same issue, pp. 344–54.

Schmidt-Linsenhoff, ‘Denied Images: The Family of Man and the Shoa’, in The Family of Man, 1955–2001, pp. 81–99; Timm Starl, ‘Eternal Man: Karl Pawek and the Weltausstellungen der Photographie’, in The Family of Man, 1955 – 2001, pp. 123–39; and Jo ̈rn Glasenapp, Die Deutsche Nachkriegsfotografie: Eine Mentalita ̈tsgeschichte in Bildern (Wilhelm Fink: Munich, 2008).

Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945–1961 (University of California Press: Berkeley, 2003), p. 188.

A Post-Fascist Family of Man? Cold War Humanism, Democracy and Photography in Germany Sarah E. James Jamesmcardle(talk) 07:37, 27 February 2017 (UTC)


For some reason, someone decided to single out the critic Susan Sontag as using a 'predictably marxist optic of class struggle," to discuss and criticize the show, with a rather useless ref to a book or article by Philip Lopate (a writer primarily on movies). First, Sontag is a major writer on photographic meaning, and this seems to be a quote from her magnum opus, On Photography; second she is clearly echoing Roland Barthes, third, many of the other commentators could be absurdly tagged in precisely the same way, fourth, nothing quoted from her here represents a rhetoric of class struggle. I was tempted to remove the whole descriptive phrase, but at that point the reference to Lopate would go, so I didn't remove it but only filed down its roughest edge. There is nothing neutral about the POV expressed in the use of the phrase. I recommend removing this bit of ignorance and may return to do so at a later date.

The entire article seems rather sophomoric in that it lacks depth.This exhibition is considered a milestone in postwar photographic exhibitions.

[Also, on the talk page, the one and only comment seems to be unsigned AND undated? What am I missing?] Actio (talk) 06:51, 27 February 2017 (UTC)

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