Of human bondage

Of human bondage
A landmark photo-exhibit curated by Edward Steichen in 1955 drew worldwide attention and some strident criticism, recalls Giridhar Khasnis.

“In 1955, Edward Steichen changed the world of photography forever,” wrote Giovanna Dunmall (The Guardian / July 5, 2013). 

“When the visionary curator and photographer decided to mount an exhibition to promote world peace and equality after two world wars, he was breaking the mould... That exhibition, ‘Family of Man’, opened in January 1955 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art... It went on to tour the world and become the most successful photography exhibition of all time — more than 10 million people have seen it.”

The scale and scope of ‘Family of Man’ was truly unprecedented. 

It took three long years of preparation for Edward Jean Steichen (1879 – 1973), the then director of MoMA’s Department of Photography to fructify the project whose rules were clearly spelt out. 

Any photographer in the world could send in submissions by way of prints no larger than 8x10 inches in size. All submissions would be acknowledged but no prints would be returned. 

As significantly, no payments or prizes would be awarded for any submission. 

“We are seeking photographs covering the gamut of human relations, particularly the hard-to-find photographs of the everydayness in the relationships of man to himself, to his family, to the community, and to the world we live in,” explained Steichen. 

“Our field is from babies to philosophers, from the kindergarten to the university, from the child’s homemade toys to scientific research, from tribal councils of primitive peoples to the councils of the United Nations... We are concerned with the individual family unit as it exists all over the world and its reactions to the beginnings of life and following through to death and burial...”

The response to his call was phenomenal. Over 2 million photographs “from every corner of the earth” were received — “from individuals, collections and files”. 

An elaborate process of selection followed, first shrinking the bulky number to 10,000. Finally, working in a small loft on Fifty-Second Street, Steichen and his associate completed “the almost unbearable task of reducing these to 503 photographs from 68 countries.” 

Among the galaxy of 273 photographers selected to be featured in the show were the likes of Ansel Adams, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Richard Avedon, Bill Brandt, Margaret Bourke-White, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau, Dorothea Lange, Irving Penn and Edward Weston. 

Also included in the selection was a photograph by Satyajit Ray — a still from his film Pather Panchali, which showed the main protagonist Apu being readied for school by his mother and sister.

Many themes

The ‘Family of Man’ addressed several themes: From the Creation of the Universe — the Creation of Man; to Couples in Love; Birth; Mother and Child; Images of Family; Learning, Thinking and Teaching; Human relationships; Death; Suffering and Pity; Dreamers; Misery and Famine; The Cruelty of Man towards Man; Faces of War; The Dead Soldier; The Explosion of a Hydrogen Bomb; and so on.

Designed by architect Paul Rudolph (1918-1997), the exhibition was divided into 38 sections interspersed with religious, literary, or philosophical quotations from around the world. 

For Steichen, curating the exhibition was one high point in the long and illustrious career as a champion of art photography. 

Describing the exhibition as “a mirror of the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world; photographs made in all parts of the world, of the gamut of life from birth to death,” he also sought to offer a strong statement of revulsion on nuclear war and violence.

“The first cry of a newborn baby in Chicago or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same pitch and key, each saying, I am! I have come through! I am a member of the family,” wrote Carl August Sandburg in the introduction to the exhibition. 
 
“A camera testament, a drama of the grand canyon of humanity, an epic woven of fun, mystery and holiness — here is the ‘Family of Man’!”

The exhibition at MoMA became a huge success, attracting more than 35,000 viewers in the first two weeks of its opening. By the time it closed on May 8, 1955, more than a quarter million people had seen it. 

Thereafter, the exhibition toured several cities within the US and 88 venues in 37 countries, attracting millions of viewers. By 1978, more than five million copies of the exhibition catalogue had been sold. 

Fierce criticism

Notwithstanding the praise and adulation it received, the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition got severe criticism from several quarters. 

Its brand of humanism was questioned. 

The show was derided as vulgar, idealised, sentimental, kitsch, bourgeois, capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal and neo-colonialist.

Photographer Walker Evans, whose picture was not included in the show, mocked it for its “human familyhood (and) bogus heartfeeling.”

The exhibition was specially censured for sporting a glaringly American perspective and an all-American aesthetic. 

It was observed that a large proportion of the images were actually selected from the archives of the popular weekly magazine, Life, which pioneered populist photojournalism in America.

Some critics felt that Steichen’s exhibition that was promoted as an emblem of the United States had failed to address modes of discrimination, racism and poverty within its own borders. 

Further, as art critic Christina Klein observed, every aspect of the exhibition’s tour seemed to have been determined by America’s Cold War political and military agenda.

Added to that, one of the sponsors of the exhibition’s tour was Coca-Cola Overseas; this to many was not only a blatant exposition of an American vision, but also its diplomatic and consumerist desires. 

As one critic observed, Steichen’s exhibition represented a profoundly corporate image of the world, as a ‘Cold Warutopia’.

More brickbats

German photography expert Berthold Beiler saw the exhibition as formalist, anti-democratic and decadent. 

He said that Steichen’s humanism failed because it only showed half the picture; it had removed man from the society that defined him. 

And it had failed to show the true colours and contours of human suffering. 

One of the most strident critics of  the ‘Family of Man’ was French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Gérard Barthes (1915-1980), who saw the show in Paris, in 1956. 

He equated the exhibition’s theme of universal oneness with American imperial aspirations. Dismissing the repetitive banalities and moralising representation of world cultures, he argued that the exhibition had intentionally excluded political issues and racial class or cultural differences.

There was also a poignant coincidence that exposed some hard truths about the exhibition and the American society. 

Steichen had first included and later removed a picture by an anonymous photographer from his exhibition. Shot in 1937, the image, ‘Death Slump at Mississippi Lynching’, showed a dead black man chained to a tree, his bound arms pulled taut behind him. 

Six months after the opening of ‘Family of Man’, a 14-year-old African-American boy named Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi; his crime was whistling at a white woman. 
 
The photographs of Till’s open coffin and mutilated face became widely published and enraged the whole world.

Barthes referred to Till’s lynching with a stinging remark: “Why not ask the parents of Emmett Till, the young Negro assassinated by Whites, what they think about the great ‘Family of Man’?”

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