Thursday, 5 January 2012

The Family of Man

The Family of Man, Created by Edward Steichen, Museum of Modern Art, New York

It is now 60 years since the start of the process to what has been called (and probably rightly so) the greatest photographic show on earth - and still probably has claim to that title

Three years curating over two million photographs.....Reduced to 503 photographs, 273 photographers and from 68 countries! (see Bill Jay's essay below). And now running the risk of being accused of institutional racism. 10 photographers were from non-western countries - 7 of them from Japan - the bulk of the photographs stemming from the USA and Western Europe.

That being said the images have been curated to show the various phases of life; a universal life including births and death, love and love-making, joy and pain, work and play. These emotive scenes - all set before the date of the collection 1955 (so 1952 and before) - were therefore, both timeless and already dated. The photographs and photographers include some of the most famous that have existed, however they (collectively) have a look of the past captured, even in the universality of the topics they cover.

If there were a Steichen alive today and he was asked to produce another "family of Man" it would be more inclusive, cultural and political sensitivities would ensure the requirement of more imagery from Africa - of the 6 or 7 photographs from that whole continent in the Family of Man were all taken by an American, of the 3 or 4 from China only 1 was taken by a Chinese photographer and of the few from India, Satyajit Ray contributed only 1. Would the latter day Steichen ask an Indian to take some pictures of Cincinnati? It is unlikely he would ask an Iranian to do the same - despite the reputation of photography from that country. Yes, I know I'm being naive. It is worth a look, the book has hardly been out of print since the exhibition opened.

For a more comprehensive re-appraisal of the exhibition and a different view of the outcome have a look at Bill Jay's essay on the subject - he is one of my favourite writers on photography and wrote this in the late '80's

What did amuse me however is that the catalogue - which might be different from the exhibition print - contains a Bresson India print that has been cropped and "levelled"! "Kashmir" p161 - if you have the book.

See which is a copy of the original

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