The Family of Man: History Meets Contemporary



5 minutes reading

In 1955, MoMA launched The Family of Man, an exhibition created by Edward Steichen that featured the work of famed photographers such as Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange, Robert Doisneau and Ansel Adams. The exhibition was “conceived as a manifesto for peace and the fundamental equality of mankind, expressed through the humanist photography of the post-war years”. In 1994, after an extensive tour, the exhibition was installed permanently at the Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg, where Steichen was born. The castle recently initiated an extensive renovation, re-opening doors in 2013. Roughly sixty years after its original opening, I visited The Family of Man in its rejuvenated state, hoping to understand why the exhibition still carries so much weight.

Steichen has explained that The Family of Man was the most significant work of his career, creating a collection, much like a photographic essay, that conveyed a message of peace in the heat of the Cold War. Over 273 artists contributed to the exhibition, which comprised 503 images. The exhibit toured over 150 museums worldwide and attracted over 10 million visitors before Steichen expressed his wish that the exhibition be permanently installed in Luxembourg.

The Family of Man was Steichen’s attempt to show the world, entrenched as it was with troubles of war and nationalistic alienation, that all the people on earth are essentially the same. Steichen selected work from photographers hailing from 68 different countries in the hope of telling a truly global story, freed from biases of origin or residence. His focus was on images that illustrated the binding factors between cultures, the common factors, rather than the ideas that divide us.

During the extended restoration period, both the photographic prints and the exhibition rooms were restored and renovated. The rejuvenation aimed for the exhibition to stay true to the historical framework within which it was created, which is why the layout remains much in its original form. Major changes occurred instead through the use of didactic methods, allowing visitors to use an iPad mini along their tour in order to look up information about the photographers and photos in the exhibition. There are so many photographs to be seen, but by extracting the heavy text away from the walls and onto the devices, making the design decidedly more modern and minimalist, viewers can focus on the visual engagement instead, if they choose. For those wishing to find more information, they can use the mini iPad.

Steichen’s original layout at MoMA, which was reproduced at Clervaux, was aimed to create an experience for the visitor to read the Family of Man as a photographic essay. Photos were chosen according to their capacity of communicating a story, or a feeling. Images were grouped together according to diverse themes. At Clervaux, these themes are indicated by a quote, ranging from poets such as James Joyce to verses from the Bible. Rather than literal headings, these quotes merely allude to the theme, allowing viewers space to form their own connections.

Each of the themes builds upon the next, creating a more complex story of humanity. Quite near the beginning of the exhibition, the quote “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” is surrounded by photographs of mothers with their newborn children. Further on, there is a photo by Irving Penn showing a young girl wearing a long white dress. She is sitting with her legs crossed and staring into the camera with an obstinate, yet questioning look in her eyes. A little cheeky and a little shy, she is emblematic of many young children: infinitely curious of a world they are still discovering.

Toni FRISSELL © Library of Congress

Within this vast collection of images, there are several images that have become iconic in their own right. For example, Dorothea Lange’s photo Migrant Mother hangs among a series of images portraying the hardships we ought not forget. “What region of the earth is not full of our calamities,” reads the quote below the images. It is these chapters of images that remind us that Steichen did not only want to use photographs to make viewer’s hearts skip a beat. He also wanted to break them. 

Though Steichen’s ‘Family’ shows connectedness, he also portrays the commonality of isolation, for example as can be seen in a photo of a little girl by Jerry Cooke. The girl is sitting on a bench, surrounded by darkness that obscures her environment entirely, with her head in her lap. From the top left corner some sunlight falls her way, but she looks devastatingly lonely. “I am alone with the beating of my heart,” the accompanying quote reads. The grouping of surrounding images contains views of people of all ages, though they are united by seeming entirely lost in thought, alone.

The exhibition includes many significant moments from history, too. There are photos of the fight for universal suffrage, people’s right to education, parties, demonstrations and much much more. The use of the iPad mini allows visitors to access extra information about the photos that strike them in particular, allowing for a personal experience within a universal exhibition.

© The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

About halfway through the exhibition, there is a documentation centre that holds a selection of current as well as historical documents that relate to the collection. It is much like a small library in which you can sit down and have a read. On a small screen, you can also see images from the renovation process from 2012-2013.

The Family of Man was listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register in 2003, alongside many other archives of historical value. Due to its successful renovation, the exhibition has a contemporary feel, but its historic value is inescapable. It is a huge collection of photographs, but not so many as to be overwhelming. Every photograph adds an additional sentence to the story that Steichen was trying to tell. Every theme reminds us over and over again that despite the fact that the human population covers the entirety of the earth, we are not so different from one another. Steichen’s work is made all the more remarkable given the context of the time, having just experienced the end of WWII and noticing the beginnings of the Cold War.

With so many photographers contributing to this body of work, sending a message of unity, it’s clear why Steichen saw The Family of Man as his most important creation. Though nearly 60 years have passed since his idea was first brought to the public’s eye, Steichen’s message has become no less clear. No matter where we are from, nor when, we are all part of the same family.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time & Life © Getty Images