August 24: Yesterday I used the word ‘legendary’ to describe 1955 The Family of Man exhibition curated by Edward Steichen, and yes, one must nod to the most infective critic of the show, Roland Barthes, in using such an adjective, it being another term for ‘mythic’, attached to the idea of Mythologies that is the title of his book, in which he accuses the show and Steichen of ‘sentimental humanism’.
Lately I have been re-reading Eric J. Sandeen’s quite exhaustive (also exhausting to read, so packed with facts is it), Picturing an exhibition : The Family of Man and 1950s America of 1995 which is among the first to address misreadings of and assumptions about the Museum of Modern Art show, achieved mostly by a thorough recount of its history and context, but also in part by returning to the origins of the photographs. Some may be traced back to articles in Life magazine, from which Steichen and his team drew many of the exhibits, though their background, because of the exhibition’s complete lack of captions, was, as he says, ‘expunged’.
I think now, in 2018, that all of us are visually literate enough to do as Steichen suggested we can in his assertion that photography was a ‘universal language’; to read the pictures and, equipped with the easy access to information about them offered online, in Wikipedia for example, uncover their history.
To return to Barthes, it is David Damrosch who points out in his 2010 book Meetings of the Mind that the French semiotician’s vehement opposition to The Family of Man was understandable if one takes account of his context; a Frenchman looking at an American exhibition, the positive and universalist message of which, while it might serve Steichen and his government’s purpose in advancing democracy internationally (through the United Nations), in France, the same promotion of ‘universal values’ was an excuse to justify its grip on its colonies.
Barthes writes about this in the opening of his long final essay ‘Myth Today’ in his Mythologies in which is also found his critique of La grande famille des hommes (‘The Great Family of Man’) as it was called when installed in Paris, at the Musee National d’Art Moderne, Jan 20-Feb 26, 1956;
I am at the barber’s, and copy of Paris-Match is offered to me. On the cover, a young Negro in a French uniform is saluting, with his eyes uplifted, probably fixed on a fold of the tricolour. All this is the meaning of the picture.
But whether naively or not, I see very well what it signifies to me: that France is a great Empire, that all her sons, without any colour discrimination, faithfully serve under the flag, and that there is no better answer to the detractors of an alleged colonialism than the zeal shown by this Negro in serving his so-called oppressors.
Barthes, in criticising what he saw as a regressive essentialism, commits the same philosophical fallacy, ‘universalising’ his critique to tar the entire show, but not taking account of his own cultural bias. But if we are to take into account Barthes’ French perspective, as Damrosch recommends, might we not undertake a contextual understanding of The Family of Man which he failed to apply? Also, if we are to refer to the pictures and their photographers, might we not take some account of their nationality?
The message that Steichen intended is Humanist. I don’t mean in the sense that gives us the name of the discipline ‘the humanities’, but in the spirit that the curator intended for the photographs he selected for the exhibition, as a “mirror of the essential oneness of [hu]mankind throughout the world.”
In the context of the post-war period such a position is understandable, and in fact was embraced by French photographers more wholeheartedly than anywhere, in the phenomenon (one would hesitate to call it a ‘style’) of Humanist Photography, several French practitioners of which appeared in the show, from the very well-known Robert Doisneau (two of his pictures from the show are above and below), Wili Ronis and Brassai (to whom I referred yesterday) and associates (though not technically Humanist) Henri Cartier-Bresson and Édouard Boubat, to the now lesser-known François Tuefferd, Nick De Morgoli, Nora Dumas, Pierre Verger, and Éric Schwab.
My children tell me that we humans are due less right to the planet than we have, given our treatment of it, and that is a realistic contemporary perspective, but in the 1940s and 50s, after the hitherto most destructive, bloody and costly war, humanism was an antidote, a clarion-call to decency and empathy to replace the bugles of battle and bloodshed.
As we trace the intersecting gazes in Les Amoureux du Vert-Galant, in which a mother seems to look back longingly to the passion of her youth only held back from yearning by the presence of her child and a gendarme, we too feel the tug of nostalgia for simpler times and amitié. Photographs from this era appear tagged #classicphoto on Twitter or Instagram and attract a flood of ‘likes’; they are treasured. Why?
Even Alan Sekula, who criticises The Family as cold-war propaganda in his 1981 The Traffic in Photographs, rethinks it in 2002, in Between the Net and the Deep Blue Sea (Rethinking the Traffic in Photographs), noting how “hard” it is “(for many Americans, at least) not to look at The Family of Man today without a tinge of nostalgia for an exhausted liberalism.” Without withdrawing his negativity about Steichen’s show, he puts his finger on why it is important to look at the exhibition now; we live in a time when there is great fear that ‘liberalism’ truly is ‘exhausted’ as the pendulum swings back hard right, weighted by ever-tilting economic inequality, racism (a denial of the humanity of the ‘other’), and the return of Hitler‘s ‘Big Lie’, brandished against truth.