The Family of Man

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This article is about the photography exhibition. For the Three Dog Night song, see The Family of Man (song).
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, then toured the world for eight years, making stops in thirty-seven countries on six continents. More than 9 million people viewed the exhibit.

Jerry Mason (1914–1991) contemporaneously edited and published a complimentary book of the exhibition through Ridge Press, formed for the purpose in 1955 in partnership with Fred Sammis.[2] The book was designed by Leo Lionni (May 5, 1910 – October 11, 1999) and reproduced in a variety of formats (most popularly a soft-cover volume)[citation needed] in the 1950s, and reprinted in large format for its 40th anniversary, and in its various editions has sold more than four million copies. All 503 images from the exhibition were reproduced with an introduction by Carl Sandburg, the 1951 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Steichen’s brother-in-law.

Sandburg's prologue reads, in part:

"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.’ " [3]

According to Steichen, the exhibition represented the "culmination of his career."

The physical collection is archived and displayed at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg (Edward Steichen's home country; he was born there in 1879 in Bivange). It was first presented there in 1994 after restoration of the prints.[2] In 2003 the Family of Man photographic collection was added to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in recognition of its historical value.[4]

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.[5] The United States Information Agency toured the photographs throughout the world in five different versions for seven years, under the auspices of the The Museum of Modern Art International Program.[6]

The collection's overtones of peace and human brotherhood symbolized a lifting of the overhanging danger of an atomic war for Soviet citizens.[7] This meaning seemed to be grasped especially by Russian students and intellectuals.[7]

The narrative of 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."

from Carl Sandberg, exhibition commentary.

An Innovative Exhibit[edit]

The physical installation and layout of the Family of Man exhibition aimed to enable the visitor to read this as a photo-essay[8] about human development and cycles of life. Architect Paul Rudolph designed a series of temporary walls[9] which guided visitors past the images encouraging them to pause at those which attracted their attention. However, open spaces within the layout required viewers to make their own decisions about their passage through the exhibition, and to gather to discuss it.

Enlarged, often mural scale images, angled, floated or curved, some even displayed on the ceiling, were grouped together according to diverse themes. These ranged from lovers, to childbirth, to household, and careers, then to death and finally, full cycle, ending once more with children. 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 an intricate story of human life. The design of the exhibition built on trade displays and Steichen's 1945 Power In The Pacific exhibition which was designed by George Kidder Smith for MoMA.

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.

The Family of Man in cultural criticism[edit]

Roland Barthes criticized the exhibition as being an example of his concept of myth - the dramatization of an ideological message. In his book Mythologies, published in France a year after the exhibition in Paris in 1956, Barthes declared it to be a product of “conventional humanism,” a collection of photographs in which everyone lives and “dies in the same way everywhere .” “Just showing pictures of people being born and dying tells us, literally, nothing.”[10]

Many other noteworthy reactions, both positive and negative, have been proposed in social/cultural studies and as part of artistic and historical texts. The earliest critics of the show were, ironically, photographers, who felt that Steichen had downplayed individual talent and discouraged the public from accepting photography as art. Walker Evans disdained its “human familyhood [and] bogus heartfeeling” [11] Phoebe Lou Adams complained that “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.”[12]

Some critics complained that Steichen merely transposed the magazine photo-essay from page to museum wall; in 1955 Rollie McKenna likened the experience to a ride through a funhouse,[13] while journalist Russell Lynes in 1973 wrote that Family of Man “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.’"[14]

From a predictably Marxist optic of class struggle, [Susan Sontag]] in On Photography accused Steichen of sentimentalism and oversimplification: : '...they wished, in the 1950s, to be consoled and distracted by a sentimental humanism. [...]Steichen's choice of photographs assumes a human condition or a human nature shared by everybody. By purporting to show that individuals are born, work, laugh, and die everywhere in the same way, "The Family of Man" denies the determining weight of history - of genuine and historically embedded differences, injustices, and conflicts.'[15]

Others attacked the show as an attempt to paper over problems of race and class, including Christopher Phillips, John Berger, and Abigail Solomon-Godeau.[16]

Conversely, other critics defended the exhibition, referring to the political and cultural environment in which it was staged. Among these was Fred Turner,[8] Eric J. Sandeen[17] and Blake Stimson.[18]

The photographers[edit]

Steichen's stated objective was to draw attention, visually, to the universality of human experience and the role of photography in its documentation. The exhibition brought together 503 photos from 68 countries, the work of 273 photographers (163 of whom were Americans)[19] which, with 70 European photographers, means that the ensemble represents a primarily Western viewpoint.[20] Pictures were selected from almost 2 million submittals from famous and unknown photographers.[21] The photos are grouped thematically to offer striking glimpses of the human experience: they dwell on birth, love, and joy but also look at war, deprivation, disease and death.

Steichen and his team drew heavily on LIFE magazine archives for the photographs used in the final exhibition. These constitute more than 20% of the total (111 out of 503). However, Steichen also travelled internationally to collect images, in 11 European countries including France, Switzerland, Austria and Germany.[22] In total, Steichen procured 300 images from European photographers which were first shown in the Post-War European Photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1953.[22] 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 Family of Man.[22] The international tour of the definitive 1955 exhibition was sponsored by the now defunct United States Information Agency, whose aim was to counter Cold War propaganda by creating a better world image of American policies and values.[22]

The following lists all participating photographers (see original 1955 MoMA checklist):


  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. ^ Mason was previously editor of This Week (1948—1952), then editorial director of Popular Publications and editor of Argosy magazine (1948—1952 [1]
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ "Family of Man". UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. 2008-05-16. Retrieved 2009-12-14. 
  5. ^ "Edward Steichen at The Family of Man, 1955". MoMA. Retrieved 15 March 2013. 
  6. ^ 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. MoMa Archives
  7. ^ 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. 
  8. ^ a b Turner, Fred (2012) 'The Family of Man and the Politics of Attention in Cold War America' in Public Culture 24:1 Duke University Press. DOI 10.1215/08992363-1443556
  9. ^ "Family of Man, Exhibition Installation at Museum of Modern Art by Paul Rudolph". Interiors (April 1955): 114-17.
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Walker Evans, “Robert Frank,” US Camera 1958 (New York: US Camera Publishing Corporation, 1957), 90.
  12. ^ Phoebe Lou Adams, “Through a Lens Darkly.” Atlantic Monthly, no. 195 (April 1955), p. 72
  13. ^ “Good photographs speak for themselves. Steichen would be the first to agree, but somehow he and Paul Rudolf (sic), a gifted Florida architect, designed a display so elaborate that the photographs become less important than the methods of displaying them [...] Pictures of children throughout the world playing ring-around-a-rosy are contorted into trapezoids and mounted on a circular metal construction. In another instance a man is chopping wood high in a tree top. This undistinguished photograph has been mounted horizontally over the spectator's head. To see it properly he has to get in the same position as the photographer who took the picture, on his back! [...] Photographs grow from pink and lavender poles, dangle from the ceiling, lie on the floor, protrude from the wall. Some, happily, just hang. In case the point has not yet been made, toward the end of the exhibit there is a group of nine portraits arranged around---yes, a mirror. Alongside is a quote from Bertrand Russell. " ... for the majority it is a a slow torture of disease and disintegration." wrote Rollie McKenna, in his review of "The Family of Man," New Republic, 14 March 1955, p. 30.
  14. ^ Russell Lynes, Good Old Modern: An Intimate Portrait of the Museum of Modern Art (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 325.
  15. ^ Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. Penguin (Harmondsworth), UK
  16. ^ 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
  17. ^ Eric J. Sandeen, Picturing an Exhibition: “The Family of Man” and 1950s America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995
  18. ^ Blake Stimson (2006), The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ Kristen Gresh (2005) The European roots of The Family of Man , History of Photography, 29:4, 331-343, DOI: 10.1080/03087298.2005.10442815
  21. ^ Luxembourg Tourist Office
  22. ^ a b c d Gresh, Kristen. 2005. "The European Roots of 'The Family of Man' ". History of Photography 29, (4): 331-343

Further reading[edit]

  • 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.
  • Stimson, Blake (2006) The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.
  • Turner, Fred (2012) 'The Family of Man and the Politics of Attention in Cold War America' in Public Culture 24:1 Duke University Press. DOI 10.1215/08992363-1443556



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.