A to Z of Photography: Family of Man (Part 2)

A to Z of Photography: Family of Man (Part 2)

The Family of Man is the second of our two monumental Fs in the A to Z of Photography. Can it usurp the 77,000 strong workforce and $22 billion turnover of Fujifilm in the last post? Surely there is nothing more all encompassing than humankind.

The Exhibition

The Family of Man (FoM) was an ambitious photographic exhibition envisaged and curated by Edward Steichen, Director of the New York Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) Department of Photography. Photography exhibitions weren't new, so what was it about FoM that made it so different? Let's start with the raw numbers.

It ran for 104 days from 24 January to 8 May 1955 and was comprised of 503 photo panels and 50 text panels from 273 photographers. It toured the world for eight years, visiting 37 countries on 6 continents and was viewed by more than 9 million people.

So what was The Family of Man? It is described by MoMa as a

...forthright declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II

and, as noted above, based around a series of photo panels, interspersed with text following the form of a photo-essay, a format I suspect John Berger would have approved of. Steichen had invited photographers to submit works that were "made in all parts of the world, of the gamut of life from birth to death, with an emphasis on the everyday relationships of man to himself, to his family, to the community, and to the world we live in" and, in so doing, demonstrate the "essential oneness of mankind". Or as Sarah Roberts notes, "a visual manifesto of peace against the backdrop of the cold war." Quotations accompanied the photos from authors such as James Joyce, Thomas Paine, Lillian Smith, William Shakespeare, and Bertrand Russell. Carl Sandburg wrote an accompanying poetic commentary.

Whilst decidedly Western in scope, the sheer breadth of life that was taken in, presenting visual and written narratives, is mesmerizing in its audaciousness. This was an exhibition that wanted to reach beyond boundaries of anything that had gone before. Besides the scale of the numbers above, what I find remarkable is that the accompanying 192 page exhibition book, "The Family of Man", is actually still in print!

The newly formed United States Information Agency toured the exhibition using five versions under the auspices of the MoMA International Programme. Notably, it didn't display in Spain, Vietnam, or China. Copy 1 toured Europe, copy 2 primarily toured the Middle East, copy 3 also went through Europe (and was donated for permanent display at the Common Market Headquarters in Luxembourg), copy 4 went around South America and Asia, and copy 5 finished in Moscow. The exhibition is permanently archived and displayed at Ciervaux Castle, Luxembourg, and is now part of UNESCO's Memory of the World Register. All of which means, even though FoM was curated and first exhibited over 60 years ago, not only can you buy the book, you can also go and see it for yourself!

The Curator

Edward Steichen was no stranger to photography. Born in Luxembourg in 1879, his parents immigrated to Chicago in 1880. He showed artistic talent early on and acquired his first camera in 1895. He was introduced to Alfred Steiglitz in 1900, who praised him for his work and bought several of his images. That started a lasting partnership in which Steichen was the most printed artist in Steiglitz's Camera Work (1903-1917). Together they opened the gallery Little Galleries of the Photo Secession which simply became known as 291. During this period Steichen also photographed a series of gowns for Art et Decoration which are now considered the first fashion photos and so started a profitable career in fashion photography shooting for Conde Nast, Vanity Fair, and Vogue (for which he is thought to have been the highest paid photographer at the time). He also served in the US Army as a photographer during World War 1 and won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1945 (The Fighting Lady) before finally heading to MoMA. That is some career and placed him in a unique position to curate the FoM.

The Photographers and Photographs

Of the 273 photographers whose work was used in the exhibition, 163 were Americans and 70 European. There were 40 women photographers in total. Steichen drew heavily on work that had been published in magazines, with 75 from Life, but also including Fortune, Argosy, Popular Photography, Harper's Bazaar, Time, and Picture Post. The vast majority of photographers supplied single images, with a handful supplying more. Wayne Miller, co-curator with Steiglitz, supplied the most and was known for his two Guggenheim Fellowships, as well as freelancing for Life.

The list of names is startling, including Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Brassai, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lewis Carroll, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Jack Delano, Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lange, Lee Miller, Carl Mydans, W Eugene Smith, Edward Steichen, Edward Weston, and Gary Winogrand amongst many others. Along with the photographers came their photos perhaps the most famous being the influential Migrant Mother, however there are many other touching and searing moments. The poster image for the book is a Peruvian boy playing the flute - this forms the front cover and then, like the Pied Piper of Hamlyn, leads viewers on a hynoptic journey reappearing along the way. Images include an Inuit mother and child hugging, four generations of farm workers in the Ozarks, rice fields in Sumatra, a recent Mexican grave, sea bathing in Coney Island, rows upon rows of washing in the city, a US solider in Korea, Wayne Miller's newborn child, Albert Einstein at work, and cleaning a doorstep in London's East End.


Whilst there were glowing tributes about the positive message portrayed in an era of post-war insecurity and the cold-war nuclear threat - particularly its intent to show the "oneness" of mankind through a broad humanism - it had many critics. These included notable philosophers Roland Barthes, John Berger, and Susan Sontag - Sontag comments in On Photography

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

In short, they believed the exhibition refuted notions of difference and so conflict and injustice, oversimplifying a complex world to the point of becoming sentimental. In the tersest possible way they were saying, "Life's tough. Get over it."

If nothing else the Family of Man presents a rich oeuvre of life with an undeniable positive message. We are all in it, in "life", for the duration. We are born, we work and play, have families, are happy, sad, and everything in between, before eventually dying. That is what we know and it happens the world over. Judge for yourself and, if nothing else, you will see the rich tapestry of life from the world's best photographers.

Other Fs

Other Fs that didn't make the cut this week include the Farm Securities Administration, Roger Fenton, ferrotype, film, filter, flash, focal length, Robert Frank, fresson process, Lee Friedlander, Francis Frith, Fstoppers, f-mount, field of view, and f-stop.

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Body image courtesy of Lbrary of Congress, in the Public Domain.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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As one of my professors once put it, "the exhibit that everyone loves to hate".

That sounds about right! The book is brilliant to dip into and, until researching this, I hadnt realised it was still on display. A trip to Luxembourg I think!!

I live in Belgium and visited Family of Man many times. Absolutely a must see!
By the way it's Clervaux not Ciervaux..