Shoshana, December 31, 2009
(view all comments by Shoshana)
Did you know that Luxembourg is where the Family of Man collection is now housed? Or that Carl Sandburg, who wrote the Prologue to the book, was Steichen's brother-in-law? Or that Leo Lionni, whom you think of as "The guy who did children's books about mice with construction paper illustrations," was the Art Director for this book? I thought not. Your knowledge of Luxembourg is woefully inadequate. You do remember that The Family of Man was one of the books on your hip great aunt's coffee table in the 1960's, though, right?
The 1955 edition of The Family of Man features over 500 photos, most of people, from 68 countries. The black and white photos of a variety of human activities are interspersed with quotations from many cultures. A number of the cultures and countries depicted no longer exist in the form represented here. The photos are grouped thematically and associatively, the choice of photos highlighting the commonality of human emotion and experience. For example, the two-page spread of pages 58-59 shows a 12-person, multi-generational family group (I presume) from Bechuanaland, minimally garbed and looking into the camera. On the facing page, an agricultural family of 11 from "U.S.A." is similarly grouped and looking straight into the camera. Pages 94-95 present a circle of 18 photos of groups dancing in circles. There is also social commentary. A page of scientists faces a boy surrounded by the wreckage of buildings in Germany.
If you're not familiar with this collection, culled from more than two million submitted photos, go find it and take a look. You'll recognize Arbus, Eisenstadt, Cartier-Bresson, Adams, Page, Doisneau, Lange and many Life photographers. You'll recognize some subjects (like Einstein and Alice Liddell) and photos (such as Lang's on the bottom of page 151). Others are simply emblematic of human experience, but far from generic.
Yes, I'd like to see gay people and fewer people from the U.S. Nonetheless, it's a startlingly broad collection for 1955, and even more moving than when I first looked it about 40 years ago.