The Family of Man and the Politics of Attention in Cold War America
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In the early spring of 1955, more than a quarter million people streamed through the doors of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They came to immerse themselves in The Family of Man. An exhibition of 503 photographs of men, women, and children, made by 273 photographers from around the world and selected by photographer Edward Steichen and his assistant, Wayne Miller, The Family of Man filled the entire second floor of the museum. A series of temporary walls designed by architect Paul Rudolph channeled visitors through the images, allowing them to move at their own pace, to pause where they liked, and to pool at pictures of particular interest. Visitors gazed at photographs of children dancing, families gathering, and men and women of myriad nations working, walking, marrying, fighting. Some pictures dangled from wires overhead, some hung from poles, and at least one faced downward from the ceiling. Some filled entire walls, while others were as small as a handbill. Together, the installation and the images left few places where visitors could turn and not encounter a picture of another person doing something they were likely to recognize.
The Family of Man quickly became one of the most popular exhibitions in the museum’s history and quite likely the most widely seen collection of photographs ever created. In the wake of its run at the Museum of Modern Art, copies of the show traveled around the United States and, thanks to funding from the United States Information Agency (USIA), to thirty- seven foreign countries as well. The USIA estimates that more than 7.5 million visitors saw the exhibition abroad in the ten years after it opened in New York.1 By 1978 the exhibition catalog had sold more than 5 million copies, and it remains in print today. Since 1994 the exhibition has even enjoyed a permanent home in a castle in Clervaux, Luxembourg.
In the decades since it first appeared, however, The Family of Man has also become a whipping boy for middlebrow midcentury aesthetics and for an oppressive view of the public that it ostensibly encoded. Since the early 1970s, critics have attacked the show as a species of American mythology (Roland Barthes), an attempt to paper over problems of race and class (Christopher Phillips, John Berger, and Abigail Solomon- Godeau), and even an act of aesthetic colonialism (Allan Sekula).2 These critiques in turn have rested on two kinds of claims, one about the exhibition and another about the sort of public it represents. First, even the most sympathetic analysts of recent years have argued that the show was essentially a Life magazine photo- essay writ large. In this view, Steichen and his colleagues arrayed their images like words in a sentence so as to deliver a particular message to a relatively passive audience. Second, critics have suggested that the images chosen for the exhibition, coupled with their arrangement at the Museum of Modern Art and elsewhere, sought to contain problems of sexual and racial difference within the symbolic confines of the nuclear family. And third, since the USIA sponsored its travels, some have implied that The Family of Man belongs alongside covert violence, puppet governments, and military invasions as a tool of American imperialism.
Without for a moment denying The Family of Man’s middlebrow aesthetics or the facts of racial, sexual, and political repression in 1950s America, I want to scrape away several decades’ worth of critical disdain and illuminate a deeply democratic, even utopian, impulse that drove the show and much of the early audience response to it. I particularly want to revisit the antiauthoritarian politics behind its design and the modes of attention it solicited from visitors. Though recent critics have depicted the exhibition as a sort of visual monolith, bent on delivering a pro- American message, Steichen and his audience saw the show as something very different. At the start of World War II and again at the start of the Cold War, the intellectuals, artists, and policy makers Steichen traveled among saw the rise of authoritarianism as a simultaneously social and psychological problem. In totalitarian countries, they argued, mass media delivered propaganda messages directly from the mouths of dictators; as a result, they undermined their citizens’ abilities to reason and transformed them into automatons. When Steichen and his team designed The Family of Man, they sought to build a media environment that would have the opposite effect. He and his designers presented viewers with an array of images, displayed in varied sizes, at different heights, and at all angles. This heterogeneous form of installation asked viewers to follow their own course among the images, to focus on the pictures that were most meaningful to them, and to knit their subjects into the fabric of their own personalities.
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This essay grew out of my participation in two communities: the University of California Humanities Research Institute’s Working Group “The Material World in Social Life” and the Screenscapes Project, a joint effort of researchers at Stanford University and Umeå University, Sweden, funded by the Wallenberg Foundation. I am grateful to the organizers of both groups — Marian Feldman and Chandra Mukerji at the University of California and Patrick Svensson at Umeå University — and to our colleagues for their feedback. I thank the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, where my research began; the Archives of the Museum of Modern Art, without whose help my research would not have been possible; and the anonymous readers for Public Culture, whose insights have substantially sharpened the piece.
- John Szarkowski, “The Family of Man,” in John Szarkowski and Museum of Modern Art (New York), The Museum of Modern Art at Mid-century at Home and Abroad (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1994), 13.
- Roland Barthes, “La grande famille des hommes” (“The Great Family of Man”), in Mythologies (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1957), 173–76; Christopher Phillips, “The Judgment Seat of Photography,” October, no. 22 (1982): 27 – 63; John Berger, About Looking (New York: Pantheon Books, 1980); Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “ ‘The Family of Man’: Den Humanismus für ein postmodernes Zeitalter aufpolieren” (“ ‘The Family of Man’: Refurbishing Humanism for a Postmodern Age”), in “The Family of Man,” 1955 – 2001: Humanismus und Postmoderne; eine Revision von Edward Steichens Fotoausstellung (“The Family of Man,” 1955 – 2001: Humanism and Postmodernism; a Reappraisal of the Photo Exhibition by Edward Steichen), ed. Jean Back and Viktoria Schmidt-Linsenhoff (Marburg, Germany: Jonas, 2004), 28 – 55; Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” Art Journal 41, no. 1 (1981): 15 – 21. For a summary and analysis of critical responses to the show to 1999, see Monique Berlier, “The Family of Man: Readings of an Exhibition,” in Picturing the Past: Media, History, and Photography, ed. Bonnie Brennan and Hanno Hardt (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 206 – 41. For a recent collection of essays on related themes, see Back and Schmidt- Linsenhoff, “The Family of Man,” 1955 – 2001. There have been two particularly important exceptions to the string of highly critical responses to the exhibition. For a nuanced discussion of the political and cultural context in which the show appeared, see Eric J. Sandeen, Picturing an Exhibition: “The Family of Man” and 1950s America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995). For a persuasive reading of the exhibition’s images in relation to one another and of the show’s efforts to foster a new globalist subjectivity, see Blake Stimson, The Pivot of the World: Photography and Its Nation (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2006).