August 23: Family

Date #23August 23: Returning to write this post, after a long absence, is like returning to one’s family after a long journey. It’s good to be back, but to explain where I’ve been is hard…where to start?

Mostly, apart from some other writing, I’ve been over at Wikipedia where I have written 45 new articles since I my last post here at the end of May, and edited many more. There, another family has had my attention; The Family of Man. You’ll have heard of it, 1955 —Edward Steichen’s magnum opus at the Museum of Modern Art in New York—and a photography exhibition that still holds the record for attendance at 9 million (just go to the link to read what I, predominantly, and other Wikipedians have written about it; you, or anyone, might contribute). In fact FoM is still on show, in a restoration at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg, where Steichen was born.

I may have seen the exhibition; I had only just turned 8 when it opened here in Melbourne, in the rather insalubrious venue of Preston Motors Show Room (now demolished), on February 23, 1959, but I doubt my photographer father took me, I don’t remember it. However it was formative in my developing interest in photography. We had the catalogue—almost everyone did (it’s still in print)—and as it was one of only three photography books on our shelf as I grew up (they were few in the 1950s and 60s), it has become a touchstone to which I have returned often as I practice and think about the medium I love.

In fact, anyone alive now who might have seen the show and was old enough to understand and remember it; at twenty, let’s say, is rare. Eighty-year-olds make up around only 2% of the population, even here in prosperous Australia, so despite the high numbers who saw the show on its tour, your chance of meeting someone who did is slim, and how many people do you know who have visited Luxembourg since 1994 when it was installed there?

Unfortunately for the exhibition, its moment in the history of photography has meant that its initial warm reception rapidly wore off. I’ve just been reading Alise Tifentale’s The Family of Man: The Photography Exhibition that Everybody Loves to Hate, in FK Magazine from July 2 this year and the reality is true to her title. To the French philosopher Roland Barthes, 9 million visitors were wrong. He was busy with the fallacies of modern folk-law as he wrote his book Mythologies, published in France a year after the exhibition came to Paris in 1956. Barthes declared FoM to be a product of “conventional humanism,” a collection of photographs in which everyone lives and “dies in the same way everywhere .” “Just showing pictures of people being born and dying tells us, literally, nothing.” Everyone, well, all the postmodernists, poststructuralists, semioticians, feminists, Marxists, antihumanists etc. followed along, including Barthes’ acolyte Susan Sontag, who slavishly copied his criticism (but without acknowledgement – you won’t find footnotes or references in On   Photography);

“By purporting to show that individuals are born, work, laugh, and die everywhere in the same way, “The Family of Man” denies the determining weight of history – of genuine and historically embedded differences, injustices, and conflicts.”

The majority of commentators and critics including John Berger, Christopher Phillips, Alan Sekula and Abigail Solomon-Godeau, perpetuated this negative response, and so did countless photography students, from my generation onwards, for whom these writers were compulsory reading. The fact is, these very critics are of the generation that didn’t see the show. Solomon-Godeau is only two years older than I and was only seven when the show was on in New York, Sekula is a year younger than me, and though Berger may have seen it, being thirty when it was on at London’s Royal Festival Hall, August 1-30, 1956, it wasn’t until 1960 that he wrote his Marxist Permanent Red. Some now contend that Barthes himself based his criticism on text by “M. André Chamson” he found in in a leaflet for the show, attributing Chamson’s ‘pious’ sentiments to Steichen, but never attending the show. To read Camera Lucida is to see him commit the same ‘sentimental humanism’ that he panned in Steichen’s curatorship; sentiment (emotion) is the punctum, in the vera icon of his mother for which he searches.

It is evident then, that the negative criticism for the show is based on the catalogue, which though it is of classic modernist design, is the mere shadow of a quite radical exhibition. More accurately we might consider it a display rather than a photography exhibition as we now understand it. The photographs were not treated as precious artefacts of the darkroom; they were hung unframed, flush-mounted on card and masonite for easy transport, regardless of the size of the original negative from which they were printed; Steichen actually asked all the photographers to hand over their negs to his printer, just as Life and other magazines were wont to require of their staffers and stringers. Then they were often blown up massively, or reduced to postcard scale, to fit the orchestrated sequence. Ansel Adams was scandalised at the treatment of his Mount Williamson from Manzanar – this was decidedly not a showcase for the fine art print! Viewers were encouraged to actually swing one panel – suspended, free-hanging, from chains – on which were mounted, back to back, images of young and old couples on swings, one by the great Brassai!

Brassai swing
Brassai’s (1936) Kiss on a Swing at a Street Fair, installed, free-hanging on chains, in the original 1955 exhibition of The Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, before its world tour.
Brassai's (1936) Kiss on a Swing at a Street Fair
Brassai (1936) Kiss on a Swing at a Street Fair, silver gelatin print, Museum of Modern Art collection.

I am inclined to agree part of the way with Christopher Phillips (born in 1959), who regarded Steichen’s exercise of his curatorial arrangement as a diminution of the contribution of the individual photographer. He is being disingenuous, though, isn’t he, in proposing that we are not able to still read the pictures? No, my position is that it is the critics who have forgotten, or more accurately, overlooked the photographers.

That’s my mission on Wikipedia. In listing all the contributing photographers I have set myself the challenge of finding out about each one and to ensuring that each has an article on them and their career in the encyclopaedia. When that is done, and we can understand what each photographer was presenting to us, we may be able to properly assess the value of this legendary exhibition.

More of that to come. For now, forgive me, I may not be writing about events in photography attached strictly to the date, but only  in order to look at some of the lesser known photographers, or lesser-known aspects of the famous photographers, who were in this exhibition, and their relevance to photography that is happening  now.

7 thoughts on “August 23: Family

  1. Welcome back! I didn’t realise the catalogue from Family of Man was still in print! I’ll have to track it down (I won’t be going to Luxembourg any time soon). I remembered it was mentioned in the BBC doco Genius of Photography.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you, James, for coming back! Your essays are a wonderful change to my morning routine. So good to read about a new topic in photography, than what Politician X did yesterday!

    Liked by 1 person

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