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The Family of Man, a portrait of humanity


On 24th January 1955, for the 25th anniversary of the museum, the MoMA welcomed what is still regarded as the greatest photographic endeavour ever undertaken.

The layout and installation of the exhibition were unprecedented, spectacular and modernist and it was intended to draw a portrait of humanity. The great moments of life are all gathered in the same space around 37 themes like a photo-essay about human development and cycles of life: love, childbirth, work, family, education, childhood, war, peace… The Family of Man thus brings to light the differences between humans but above all it highlights the universal aspect of their feelings and lives, as it is explained by Carl Sandburg, the author of the preface of the exhibition catalogue: “There is one man in the world and his name is All man.

Carl Sandburg

A poet, journalist and historian, Carl Sandburg was a major figure of the American literature of the 20th century. Very aware of the movements of the world throughout his life, he got interested in numerous subjects, became a writer for several newspapers and a civic activist. He won three prestigious Pulitzer prizes for his poetry and biography. Sharing with Steichen the same quest for a universal representation of humanity, he had accompanied him during his life, both as a member of the family since he was married with his sister Lilian, but also as an artist.

Edward Steichen, Carl Sandburg, Bequest of Edward Steichen/Collection MNHA Luxembourg © 2021 The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

[The Family of Man] was conceived as a mirror of the universal elements and emotions in the everydayness of life – as a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.

Edward Steichen
The humanist photography

Culminating between 1945 and 1960, humanist photography aimed to record the day-to-day life, put images on social concerns, show the work being done, celebrate everyday simple pleasures and illustrate emotions. It has been described as the “poetic realism” in photography. Although it was sometimes tinged with sadness, melancholy or nostalgia, its purpose was mainly to display a kind of collective good mood, understanding and harmony. In other words, it just wanted to prove that life was worth living…despite everything. Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Sabine Weiss… were some of the photographers who had propelled this movement to the top in a post-war framing. Some of their most famous shots, promises of a hopeful future and symbols of faith in humanity, are part of the collection The Family of Man.

Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sevilla, Spain, 1933 © Magnum

John Philips, A child writing a sentence on the blackboard at school, Palestine, 1943, Time & Life © Getty Images

Allan Grant, USA, Time & Life © Getty Images

Lisa Larsen, Guatemala

The Family of Man aimed to be a snapshot of its time, trying to overcome its fears. Its attempts to answer the contemporary questions remained deeply rooted in its context so as to be able to move beyond and reach the timelessness and the universality to which it was aspiring. Amid a world divided by political tensions, the exhibition was displaying a peaceful vision full of humanism, supported by a democratic and engaged message.

John Florea, Signs written on the street bus, reminding citizens of Indonesia's inalienable rights, Indonesia, 1945, Time & Life © Getty Images

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

In 1948 the Member States of the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. After the trauma of the Second World War, this text outlined the fundamental rights to which all men and women were entitled, without any distinction and with recognition of the inherent dignity of all members of the human family. It asserted access to a fair and equal treatment, the right to live in peace, to be educated, to marry and found a family, to own property and be able to protect it, to say freely one’s ideas and one’s opinions, to believe or not to believe in a religion, to take part in the life of one’s country, to circulate freely, to work and get a just remuneration, to rest and have leisure time… This text defines the great aspects of life that are universally shared by men all over the world. The very nature of the approach taken by Steichen for The Family of Man was so similar to the United Nations Declaration that the theorist Ariella Azoulay described the exhibition as a visual declaration of the human rights, even more since the 1955 press release for the opening of the exhibition at the MoMA was announcing “an exhibition of creative photography dedicated to the dignity of man”. Furthermore, it is worth mentioning that the epilogue of the exhibition was displaying a picture of the United Nations General Assembly as if to highlight the essential character of the democratic institutions for peacekeeping. The photograph was one of the biggest of the exhibition and the text next to it with it was directly drawn from the declaration.


Multiplicity and unity: a scenography for universality

The exhibition […] demonstrates that the art of photography is a dynamic process of giving form to ideas and of explaining man to man.

Edward Steichen

With The Family of Man, Steichen explored the power of communication through images. He used photography as a universal language, understandable all over the world, and visitors were invited to identify and to share empathy with those they were meeting through the pictures.
The strong impact on the visitor is mainly due to the installation and layout. Thanks to a plan built as a linear route, the layout of the exhibition was inspired by modern architecture. The different sizes of prints are displayed at different levels in the room and are sometimes removed from the walls to be set on the floor or hung from the ceiling so as to encourage the visitor’s participation. This spatial arrangement keeps the viewers alert and make them play an active role while moving around. They thus can actively participate in the exhibition and become a part of it.

Installation de l’exposition “The Family of Man” au Château de Clervaux © CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

Installation de l’exposition “The Family of Man” au Château de Clervaux © CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021


An exhibition thought of as a collage

Steichen approached the exhibition like an editor of illustrated magazines. To build up his story, he took the pictures out of their context, deprived them from their title, their date or any mention about their original place to integrate them into his storytelling. He was the one to decide the framing, the size and the order and he chose short quotations to create a kind of collage as if on a LIFE magazine page.
Although the photographs have the leading role, their main purpose is to showcase a transcendent idea: their meaning lies not in the picture in itself, but in the dialog that photographs may establish between themselves and the visitor. From this point of view Steichen’s process closely resembles film editing.

Installation de l’exposition “The Family of Man” au Château de Clervaux © CNA/Romain Girtgen, 2021

The power of film editing: the Kuleshov effect

What Steichen owed to the cinema in his work for the exhibition is essential. Indeed, he himself described The Family of Man as a movie in which the mobile component was not the picture but the visitor. The way he conceived a scenography with pictures interacting the ones with the others and having an impact on those who admired them was somewhat reminiscent of the Kuleshov effect. Named after the Soviet filmmaker who used it first in 1921, this experience showed a short film in which a shot of the expressionless face of the actor Ivan Mosjoukine was alternated with various other shots of a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, a woman lusciously lying on a divan. Kuleshov showed the film to his students and asked them to comment thereon. They all agreed to say that the actor had played his part very well since for each shot an expression of hunger, grief or desire… The expression and the face were actually the same shot each time. Kuleshov used the experiment to prove the capital importance of film editing and its influence on interpretation since the human brain would automatically try to find a logical meaning to a juxtaposition of images, even without a direct link. This is how montage has the power to create emotions and to develop a meaning that has its roots not merely in the sole picture but rather in the way the visual elements are working together to create a dialog.

This was therefore an unusual and visionary experience that Steichen proposed with The Family of Man. It brought photojournalism into the museum, questioning the frontiers between art and document, making the artist’s single work disappear in favour of the overall concept and making the exhibition accessible to everyone without distinction.


Traveling the world through photos: The journey of the exhibition

Between 1955 and 1964, the exhibition became itinerant and toured the world visiting numerous countries as India, Russia, France, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Australia… in the form of ten copies with minor changes sent to nearly 160 towns. Each of the copies was weighing one tonne and a half, was packed in twenty-three crates and required more than six days to be mounted/installed.

Installation view of the exhibition "The Family of Man" (travelling exhibition organized by MoMA, NY) in Guatemala, Guatemala City, Palacio Protocolo, August 24 through September 18, 1955 © 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Packing crates from the circulating exhibition file "The Family Man, I, II", New York, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). © 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

The exhibition in South Africa

In 1958, Steichen’s exhibition was presented in Johannesburg under the apartheid regime in South Africa. This kind of segregation, that could be found in different places of the world for instance in the USA, had been implementing since 1948, a policy of separated development according to ethnic and language criteria, dividing the population in four main categories: Whites, Indians, Metis and Blacks. The towns were reserved for Whites, the other communities were confined to ghetto areas and the contacts between Whites and non-Whites were strongly limited in daily life and throughout the whole country. By the way, South Africa had abstained from adopting the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, rejecting the affirmation of citizens’ right to equality before the law without any discrimination due to birth or race. The Family of Man which was shown in this context was delivering a message of equality and unity and instantly echoed the darkest hours the country was going through. A journalist of Johannesburg Sunday Times wrote: “I am writing this under the spell of an exhibit that could change the face of South Africa if it were seen and felt and understood by the right people… and I say it could change the face of South Africa, because no human being seeing it and understanding its message could ever hold race-hate in his heart again.” The Johannesburg New Age, a newspaper under communist influence, asserted: “It is something everybody should get a chance to see – it’s an eye-opener – the whole exhibition is a testament to the brotherhood of man.

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Family of Man' (travelling exhibition organized by MoMA, NY), at Government Pavilion, Johannesburg, Union of South Africa, August 30 through September 13, 1958 © 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

I am deeply moved and greatly admire this exhibition. It seems to me that it is not only an excellent exhibition technically speaking but, more importantly, it seems to me a lesson in human brotherhood.

Fernando Debessa for the Chilean Playwright

Commissioned by the USIA (United States Information Agency), an American governmental unit created during the Cold War to promote a positive image of the United States in front of the Russian propaganda, the exhibition traveled. The USIA intervention in touring The Family of Man throughout the world has been stirring controversy, some accusing it to be politically biased, to present the vision of a humanity mostly through a Western-centred lens and to use it to spread an ideal American model. Anyway the exhibition did answer the expectations of an American diplomacy shaken by the Cold War.

The exhibition in USSR

In 1959 the exhibition was presented in Moscow with its universal message for peace in a united world, as part of the American National Exhibition, an event proposing a large overview of the American industrial and cultural productions. This event became famous for what was called the Nixon-Khrushchev Kitchen Debate, a series of impromptu exchanges that occurred in the kitchen of a model house in the General Electric pavilion between U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev. Both of them evoked the positive and negative aspects of their respective business models and concluded that their two nations should converge, thereby paving the way for a warming between the eastern and western blocs.

It is this context in which The Family of Man met with people represented: during this period, nearly 10 million visitors came in search of not only a one moment capture but to witness the whole humanity, living and moving and in all its complexity.

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Family of Man' (travelling exhibition organized by MoMA, NY), at Government Pavilion, Johannesburg, Union of South Africa, August 30 through September 13, 1958 © 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Family of Man' (travelling exhibition organized by MoMA, NY). Takashimaya Department Store, Tokyo (Japan), March through April 1956 © 2021. Digital image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence

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