August 8th, 2006


Family of Man

I misssed the fiftieth anniversary of one of the seminal books in my -- well I can't call it reading, but book life:  the book made from Edward Steichen's 1955 exhibition at MOMA called The Family of Man.  I had the book of the show when I was in high school; how it came into the house I don't now now, but it affected me profoundly.  I wanted to memorialize it in an essay, but having missed the hook of an anniversary, I don;t suppose anyone would want it.  The book/show itself, for those of you who don't remember, was a vast exhibition of photographs from all over the world, by famed art photographers, famed journalist photographers, unknowns, snapshooters, official state photographers, and all; many were blown up to huge size, many were mounted abutting one another.  The main identification for each picture was not the name of the photographer -- many were unknown or from agencies like Rapho Guillamette -- but the country where they had been taken.  Interspersed with them were large quotes or tags or mottoes suggestive of the universality of human experience:  "As the generation of leaves, so is that of man."  "Eat bread and salt and speak the truth."  "The people rose up to dance and sat down to eat and drink."  (These from memory; the book isn't with me.) 

Later on, when I studied photography with Henry Holmes Smith at Indiana University I adopted his attitude of cheerful contempt for Steichen and for that show.  Photography was attempting to acquire fine-art status (again, having failed a couple of times in a couple of modes) by aligning with the abstract and formalist schools of the early sixties; Harry Callahan, Minor White, Gary Winograd etc; the value of a Cartier-Bresson (who was much present in the FOM show) was said to lie in its formal qaulities. Blowing up and cropping pictures without the artist's permission was a violation of the art mode; so was slapping a lot of accidental pictures togehter to make a preconceived meaning or theme. Okay, but I still had to reconcile this with my earlier intense interest and the sense I had had of something enormous and profound and moving that had been opened to me (I would have to make the same reconciliation or revolution -- exact sense -- in my feelings for the fairy and children's books and Elizabethan dramas I loved in youth).  That's what I would have liked to examine.  Maybe I willhere in future postings (don't want to conmmit the websin of overlong posts).