Directed by Edward Steichen, the head of Photography Department in Museum of Modern Art, the exhibition “The Family of Man” was intended to be a «declaration of global solidarity in the decade following World War II». However, the evidence which the curator gave in the project, did not seem to be solid for art-critics. Was the photo archive indeed able to bring people together in the post-war time? 

10 years of preparation

The exhibition brings together 503 photographs taken by 273 photographers, both professionals and amateurs. In the list of authors one can find such acknowledged names of the beginning of 20th century as Wynn Bullock or Elliott Erwitt, as well as anonymous «unknown photographers». The authors of the pictures came from 68 countries, which include Jamaica, U.S.S.R., Korea, Guatemala, Peru, Indonesia, South Africa. Yet 163 from 273 photographers were Americans, and 70 were Europeans. According to Kristen Gresh, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, it might signify that in the project displays primarily the Western viewpoint.

Edward Steichen and his team collected the pictures for the project by visiting the photographers, searching in the archives of LIFE Magazine and such agencies as Magnum. First exhibition opened in 1955 in New York, and from that time the archive travelled around the world for more than 10 years. After the tour the permanent exhibition was established at Clerveaux Castle in Luxembourg, the hometown of Edward Steichen.

Clerveaux Castle

“Show Man to Man across the world”

The physical installation of “Family of Man” aimed to tell a story, create a narrative by sorting the photographs in sections. Each one of them shows people of various races and nationalities engaged in the similar kind of activity. Furthermore, all the sections are labelled with different “life stages” from birth to death, for example: «marriage», «pregnancy», «births», «children», «family activities», «work», «death». There are also wide categories describing feelings as «aloneness and compassion», «hard times», «revolt». The last ones are presumably illustrating the common post-war state of mind. This idea might be supported by the examination, that there are barely any section with positive feelings in the archive.


Manuel Alvarez Bravo
Mexico, 1948


Elliott Erwitt
U.S.A., 1953

So, as it was pointed in the recruiting letter of Dorothea Lange, the assistant of Edward Steichen, the collection of photographs aimed to “show Man to Man across the world”. Later in the letter one can read the following comment: “We hope to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil. If photography can bring these things to life, this exhibition will be created in a spirit of passionate and devoted faith in Man”. Edward Steichen believed, that photography “communicates equally to everybody through the world” and that “it is the only universal language requiring no translation”. Therefore here one can find the key-point of the exhibition itself: it is intended to tell the story of a Man, whose life and feelings are projecting the universal model. And photography, as it is mentioned above, seemed to be the most suitable medium for the curator. So, both using the universal “medium” and showing the common tide of life and warnings in post-war era, Steichen aimed to get global solidarity.


Werner Bischof
India, 1951

George Silk
China, 1946

Different public engaged

According to an American photographer Barbara Morgan, the exhibition embraced the idea of “universal language”: “In comprehending the show the individual himself is also enlarged, for these photographs are not photographs only — they are also phantom images of our co-citizens”. Thus, the exhibition itself subjugated the individuality of image and author as well. Image itself was not as much of importance, as the message to the public. And it also concerns the creative self-expression, which was not the main objective of the project. That made “The Family of Man” unique for the 1950s, as in the post-war era the photographer was evaluated as a serious, committed and creative individual, ranked equally with any artist. Yet the photographs in the project could have been regarded as journalistic or advertising illustrations. Here is critique which one could find about the exhibition:

“…some people object that The Family of Man is not art at all, but a social and anthropological document, and ought to be moved from its present location to the Museum of Natural History”; 

“What is disheartening is to see the agency (Museum of Modern Art) which claims to preside over the artistic values of photography tumble so easily into a vulgar ideological postures”

The change in Steichen’s approach was evident, as in the exhibitions prior to “The Family of Man” curator gave full attention to the photograph as Art. It can be even seen in the titles of projects: “Murals by American Painters and Photographers”, “Art in Progress”, “Abstraction in Photography”. Thus, by using photography as a source predominantly to communicate with public, rather than to stress the exclusivity of the artist, Steichen was criticized by the intellectual community.

Dorothea Lange
U.S.A., 1936

According to Terry Towel, a photographer and professor at Lehman College, the exhibition reflected “the sunny vision of humanity”. The scientist drives this conclusion, as the exhibition closes with «romping children and, last of all, in Eugene Smith’s Walk to Paradise Garden, depicting his own children emerging from darkness into glorious sunshine».

“The sunny vision of humanity” was needed by Americans at the second half of 1950 because people by that time were under the fear of Communism and Cold War. As writes the researcher, the scare in the country can be observed in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in 1953. The cause of such indictment was that citizens of the United States were convicted in espionage for the U.S.S.R. The next illustration of fear Terry Towel finds in the televised public hearing of charges of Communist subversion by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954. The thaw started in 1954, as the U.S. Senate voted to condemn Joseph McCarty in December. In the following month “The Family of Man” opened in MoMA, displaying that “Mankind is not only all one, it is all good”.

Eugene Smith
U.S.A., 1946

So, both by piquing the self-esteem of artists and supporting the public frame of mind, Edward Steichen reached to gather reaction to his project. It is questionable, whether the curator got the solidarity or not, but “The Family of Man” definitely provoked people to discuss and debate, which is sometimes more important.

In 2003 the collection was included in the list of UNESCO Memory of the World. Thus, it was listed with such documentary heritage as the 1893 women’s suffrage petition, the Alfred Nobel family archives and the appeal of 18 June 1940.


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