The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

INSPIRATION: THE FAMILY OF MAN

We previously wrote about The Family of Woman—celebrating female life as we lead up to Mother’s Day. This book is one of many in my library which is a well-loved, well-traveled collection of tomes that are an inspiration to the eye and fuel for the mind. 

The Family of Woman is part of a series of books about humanity and families that was published by Jerry Mason and Ridge Press from 1955 to 1979. The series also includes The Family of Children, Family, and The Family of Man, a book accompanying the famed photographic exhibition produced by the Museum of Modern Art.

Pregnant Women in The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

“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 Belong! I am a member of the Family,” writes Carl Sandberg in the introduction of The Family of Man. The book includes 503 pictures taken by 273 photographers from 68 countries. The exhibit is one of the most well-known of the 20th century, opening in January 1955 and curated by Edward Steichen. The exhibit toured worldwide and it’s estimated that over 9 million people viewed it, across 37 countries. 

Mothers with children in The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

Steichen conceived of the exhibition as a way to display the “everydayness of life,” and “the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” The collection is blatantly, some might say, unabashedly anti-war – but it has been criticized as being romantic and overly sentimental. While readers and viewers generally view the photographs in the collection positively, critics say that its idealism keeps it from addressing the realities of history, politics, and cultural differences. Viewing the book now, you can see Steichen’s intent and hope for a holistic, unified world in a society that we now know was on the brink of culture and generational clashes. MoMA writes that, “the photographs included in the exhibition focused on the commonalities that bind people and cultures together around the world and the exhibition served as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II.”

Eat, drink, and play in The Family of Man by Edward Steichen

Dorothea Lange was one of many friends who helped him find photographers to participate. She sent out a 1953 recruiting letter explaining that exhibit’s intent was to “show Man to Man across the world. Here we hope to reveal by visual images Man’s dreams and aspirations, his strength, his despair under evil.” She listed 33 terms that might serve as inspiration, which included words like Man, Hunger, Conflict, Work, Invention, Worship, Hope, and Create. There are notable artists included, like Lange, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, and dozens of others. Steichen also combed catalogues of Life magazine, Vogue, Ladies Home Journal, and well-known photography agencies for images. 

Photographs were grouped into 37 thematic sections, beginning at birth, and including images of falling in love, getting married, having children, going to work and school, enjoying meals and activities, and dying. The book does not include an image of the atomic bomb that was part of the exhibition, but both the book and exhibit end the same way: with the idea of survival and rebirth. 

It is hard to deny that some images within the book are truly striking and thought-provoking. Some parts are emotionally challenging to process and other sections project beauty for beauty’s sake. Both the fans and the detractors are correct: there is a simplistic beauty within, but the collection does not challenge us in the way it could. The Family of Man can be seen as a challenge to all of us to push farther and question more, for the sake of truth and beauty.

The Family of Man Cover by Edward Steichen

Find The Family of Man here

Read back on The Journal here to learn more about The Family of Woman: A World-Wide Photographic Perception of Female Life and Being


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2 comments on “INSPIRATION: THE FAMILY OF MAN

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  1. Bonnie B

    I have so much love for this book. I got my first copy 45 years ago… I was 9 years old! I picked it out at the bookstore, and my patents let me have it. I stared at each photo for hours! I lost my copy somewhere in a move in my early 30’s, and I hadn’t thought much about it again until a few months ago when I found two used copies at separate thrift shops (about a week apart from each other). It stirred up so much emotion in me to go through the book again… I remembered falling into so many of these images and the stories I’d written in my mind. This book has really stood the test of time. Thank you for writing about it 💛

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