"The Family of Man" Revisited

The multiple meanings and uses of MoMA's landmark 1955 photography exhibition.

Louis Menand is Professor of English at Harvard. He is the author of The Metaphysical Club, which won the Pulitzer Prize in History and, most recently, The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War, from which this essay is adapted.

The Museum of Modern Art’s blockbuster photography exhibition The Family of Man, which opened in January 1955, was a visual expression of the central assertion of UNESCO’s “Statement by Experts on Race Problems” that Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist and structuralist, signed in 1950: “The unity of mankind from both the biological and social viewpoints is the main thing. To recognize this and to act accordingly is the first requirement of modern man.”

The show was a collection of photographs of people from around the world, some by well-known photographers like Dorothea Lange, Diane Arbus, Gordon Parks, Helen Levitt, Edward Weston, Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Irving Penn, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, and others by amateurs. The pictures were identified by country and photographer, and arranged thematically to illustrate birth, love, family, work, play, grief, war, faith, death, and, at the end, childhood again. They were intended to demonstrate, in the words of the catalogue, “the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world.” The photographs were accompanied by tags from the Bible, folk adages, and sayings by well-known figures: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves,” Thomas Jefferson. “I still believe that people are really good at heart,” Anne Frank. The show was a major international cultural event.

The Family of Man was entirely the inspiration of its curator, Edward Steichen. He began imagining an exhibition on “Human Relations and Human Rights” in 1949, two years after his appointment as director of the museums’s department of photography. Steichen was then 70 years old. He was born in Luxembourg and came to the United States when he was an infant, and he had major achievements in virtually every genre of photography: art photography (he was a close associated of Alfred Stieglitz early in the century), advertising and fashion photography (he was the photographer for Condé Nast from 1923 to 1938), aerial photography (for the army during the First World War and the navy during the Second World War), even documentary film. His movie about life on an aircraft carrier, The Fighting Lady, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1945. He intended The Family of Man to be his crowning achievement.

The story of the show is a story of numbers. That is how it was promoted and how its effect was measured. Steichen, his friend Dorothea Lange, and his assistant, Wayne Miller, spent three years in preparation, and reviewed more than three million photographs. Steichen met with photographers in 20 cities in 11 European countries. The show contained 503 photographs by 273 photographers from 68 countries. It broke attendance records at MoMA, where it was on display for 102 days and attracted a quarter of a million visitors. It travelled to six other American cities, and replicas toured the world for seven years. Attendance numbers were fantastic: 276,000 in Belgrade, 350,000 in Calcutta, 293,000 in Tokyo. In all, the exhibition was seen in 88 venues in 37 countries by nine million people. A catalogue was published in at least four separate formats. The paperback version alone is estimated to have sold more than four million copies. It was designed by Leo Lionni, a European émigré who would shortly afterward publish a popular children’s book about racial discrimination, Little Blue and Little Yellow.

The photographs ranged in size from eight by ten inches to ten by twenty feet and were mounted, in an installation designed by the architect Paul Rudolph (a student at Harvard of the founder of the Bauhaus, Walter Gropius), mostly on Masonite boards without frames. These were hung unconventionally—from wires or on poles—and grouped in specially designed areas.

The method of the exhibition was not new. A show of images two years earlier at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Parallel of Life and Art, was hung in the same manner. But The Family of Man was an installation: that is, the exhibition, not the individual photographs, was the artwork. Because they were not wall-mounted, it was possible for viewers to see photographs from different areas at the same time. People were rarely seeing just a single image. Visitors followed a path through the thematic sequence, ending in a room containing a six-by-eight-foot color transparency of a hydrogen bomb explosion. All the photographs were intended to be observed in passing. A gruesome picture of a lynching, taken by an anonymous photographer in Mississippi in 1937, was removed early on because viewers stopped to stare at it, disturbing the flow. At the end, there was a smoky mirror in which people could see their own faces, and the space was designed so that those on the way out passed those on the way in and were forced to make eye contact.

Formally, the exhibition was received as an assault on fine-art norms. The artwork was de-aestheticized, not isolated for contemplation; the viewer was de-individualized, made to function as part of a crowd; the art of composition was reduced to an act of selection. The idea that artistic merit could be expressed quantitatively—503 images, 273 photographers, nine million viewers, and so on—was mildly scandalous. This was box-office art. For photographers whose careers had been devoted to securing fine-art status for photography, the show was a betrayal. Minor White, a disciple of Stieglitz and the editor of Aperture, complained that Steichen had appropriated the works of individual artists and subordinated them to a spectacle of his own.

The Family of Man was received not only as a betrayal of art photography. It flouted the aesthetic principles laid down by Clement Greenberg, the most influential art critic in the country (and the man who brought the German word kitsch into the American critical lexicon). Greenberg did not review Steichen’s exhibition; he had his protégé Hilton Kramer do it for Commentary, where Greenberg was an editor. The Family of Man wasn’t art, Kramer complained; it was journalism. “And as so often happens in our culture when art abandons itself to journalism,” Kramer said, “its mode of articulation has a distinct ideological cast—in this instance, a cast which embodies all that is most facile, abstract, sentimental, and rhetorical in liberal ideology.” By “liberal ideology,” Kramer meant in this instance the fellow-traveling mentality.

He was not wrong. The message of The Family of Man—peace and democracy through tolerance and understanding—was the Soviet line. And so it should not be surprising that no one loved The Family of Man more than the left-wing press. The American Communist Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, called it “a stirring ode to all of the earth’s people” and promoted the show and its catalogue repeatedly. The show received positive reviews in left-wing journals such as The New Republic and The Progressive. The progressive (though anti-Communist) United Auto Workers devoted an entire issue of its bulletin, Ammunition, to the exhibition. The issue was entitled “UAW-CIO and The Family of Man”; it printed 17 pages of photographs from the show followed by 41 pages of photographs of UAW activities.

When the exhibition came to France, in 1956, the review in the French Communist Party’s newspaper L'Humanité was headlined, “A Deeply Moving Exhibition.” The paper’s film critic, Samuel Lachize, wrote: “It is heartwarming to know that this unique collection, which is touring the world, comes to us from the United States, expressing as it does the love of mankind, the brotherhood of this great family which inhabits the earth.” He called it “a great exhibition that must be seen.” (The public affairs official in the American embassy was delighted to send a copy of this review to Washington.) Un Art qui crie la vérité—”An Art that cries out the truth”—was the headline in the Communist-supported Les Lettres Françaises. The reviewer, Marcel Cornu, a member of the French Communist Party, called the show “an extraordinary exhibition.” He deplored the texts—”a marmalade of sweet and bland words”—but he found the images “vivid and explosive.” The exposition, he wrote, was “a marvel.”

The show reached Moscow in the summer of 1959 as part of the American National Exhibition, an enormous spectacle dedicated mainly to consumerism, with displays of American automobiles, color television sets, boats, sporting equipment, farm machinery, computers, food, fashion, books, newspaper, art, and a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The art included works by Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and William de Kooning, and (less provocatively) by Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth, Grant Wood, and other realists. The exhibition also included a model kitchen of a model ranch house (furnished by Macy’s), and it was there that Vice President Richard Nixon and the Soviet premier, Nikita Khrushchev, had the exchange about living standards and leadership in technology that became known as the “kitchen debate.” (The subtext was Khrushchev’s recently announced intention to cut off Western access to Berlin, an escalation of tensions.)

As was true of virtually every government-sponsored art exhibition since 1946, there were domestic complaints about the style of the art and the politics of the artists whose work was being sent to Moscow. President Eisenhower was asked by a reporter whether the art “truly represents Americans to the Russians.” His answer is a classic sample of his ad hoc verbal manner:

I am not going, I assure you, I am not going to be the censor myself for the art that has already gone there. Now I think I might have something to say if we have another exhibit, anywhere, to the responsible officials of the methods they produce, or get the juries and possibly there ought to be one or two people that, like most of us here, say we are not too certain exactly what art is but we know what we like and what America likes—what America likes is after all some of the things that ought to be shown.

Twenty-seven paintings, mostly from the 19th century, were duly added to the exhibit. No paintings were withdrawn. More than 2.7 million Russians, plus tens of thousands of gate-crashers, attended the exhibit, and they were invited to vote on their favorite attractions. Only a fraction did, but The Family of Man was No. 1.

The Family of Man’s world tour was run by the newly-created United States Information Agency (USIA), not the Museum of Modern Art, and, measured by eyeballs, it was probably the most successful venture in cultural diplomacy during the entire Cold War. The exhibit was sometimes edited according to the venue. In Japan, the transparency of the bomb explosions was replaced by images of Japanese atomic bomb victims. In Moscow, an official Soviet request for the removal of a picture of a Chinese child begging was granted. But the overall design required balance, and the fact that, apart from country and photographer, there was no identifying information about the pictures depoliticized most of the images. Every image was generic—which, of course, was the point.

The original exhibition includes a photograph of young men throwing paving stones at tanks during the 1953 workers’ uprising (quickly suppressed) in East Germany, but that is the only allusion to Communism. Apart from the hydrogen bomb transparency and the removed lynching photograph, the major image of political violence is a photograph used at the Nuremberg Trials of Jews being marched out of the burning ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto after the uprising was crushed in 1943. A photograph of Asian women screaming behind barbed wire is, despite appearances, actually a picture of young South Koreans protesting the signing of the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953. Most of the photographs signifying poverty are of Americans.

The message of the exhibition was not anti-Communism. It was anti-colonialism. The exhibition was used by the American government to signal where the sympathies of the United States should be understood to lie in the coming struggles over decolonization. Since that happened to be the same place where the Soviets wanted their sympathies understood to lie, it was a message the Communist press was quick to embrace. 

The Family of Man opened in Paris at the Musée National d'Art Moderne in an exhibition mounted by Steichen personally. Sixty thousand people went to see it. In its monthly magazine, UNESCO ran a 15-page spread of images from the show accompanies by an essay, by a British scientist, Cyril Bibby, on racist subtexts in ordinary speech. One of the reviewers of the Paris show was the semiotician Roland Barthes, and his eight-paragraph essay about it (“La grande famille des hommes”) is possibly the best-known thing he ever wrote.

Barthes’s complaint about The Family of Man was that the show ignored the existence of injustice and exploitation in the name of what, for people suffering from those things, amounted to a spurious notion of human commonality. Barthes asked what use the parents of Emmett Till (he misspelled the name, and Till had only one parent: his father was dead), the 14 year-old boy who had been lynched in Mississippi a few months earlier, or North African workers in the immigrant neighborhoods of Paris might have for the concept of “the family of man.” 

This was a perverse misreading of the show, and it suggests that, in fact, Barthes never actually saw it. He may have been reacting simply to the publicity and to reviews like the one in L'Humanité. He would have had no reason to know about the removed lynching photograph, but there were many images of suffering and oppression, and the photograph of Jews being led from the Warsaw Ghetto would have been hard to overlook in Paris in 1956, a time when the subject of the Holocaust was only just starting to get attention. (Alain Renais’s 32-minutes documentary about the camps, Night and Fog, which was shown at Cannes over the objections of West Germany in April 1956, and which opened in Paris on May 22, was one of the first efforts in France to address the fact of the camps.) The Family of Man was all about eradicating injustice and discrimination in the name of human rights. That was the essence of its progressivism.

Barthes had a philosophical objection as well. The exhibition, he said, relied on “a very old mystification, which consists in always placing Nature at the bottom of History.” Viewers were prevented from penetrating “that further zone of human conduct, where historical alienation introduces those ‘differences’ which we shall here call quite simply injustices.” The “natural,” Barthes was arguing, is itself a product of history—that is, contingent, not immutable or universal. 

Exactly the same criticism can be leveled against the anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss. The Family of Man was highly sentimentalized, but its view of humankind resembled in some ways the structuralist one laid out in Lévi-Strauss’s writings, including Tristes Tropiques, which was published 10 months after The Family of Man’s MoMA debut. 

Tristes Tropiques is a memoir of Lévi-Strauss’s fieldwork in Brazil in the 1930s, but it also explains how structural anthropology works. Structuralism is anti-empiricist, anti-historicist, and anti-humanist. It rejects a priori almost everything most people believe indispensable to humanistic study: attending to the particularity of cultural objects, interpreting them in light of the circumstances in which they were produced and the intentions of their producers, evaluating their moral and political implications, and regarding them as irreducible to a scientific explanation. Instead, Lévi-Strauss thought in terms of systems. Cultures—from myths to cuisine to kinship—are systems human groups have developed to help them cope with their situations. Pre-colonization, these systems differed widely. 

But Lévi-Strauss thought that the more “civilized” humans become, the more the species exhausts itself. “The world began without man and will end without him,” Lévi-Strauss wrote in the final chapter of Tristes Tropiques. Human creations “will merge into the general chaos, as soon as the human mind has disappeared.” He wrote:

Civilization, taken as a whole, can be described as an extraordinarily complex mechanism, which we might be tempted to see as offering an opportunity of survival for the human world, if its function were not to produce what physicists call entropy, that is, inertia. Every verbal exchange, every line printed, establishes communication between people, thus creating an evenness of level, where before there was an information gap and consequently a greater degree of organization. Anthropology could with advantage be changed into ‘entropology,’ as the name of the discipline concerned with the study of the highest manifestations of this process of disintegration.

Lévi-Strauss’s idea was that the better people understand one another, the more alike they become. As a result, cultural differences, and therefore cultural possibilities, disappear. Culture evens out, becomes homogenous. It suffers the equivalent of heat death in thermodynamics. Order, which requires difference, gives way to chaos, where everything is on the same level—the same temperature, so to speak—and there are no distinctions. 

And monoculture, driven by Western expansion, turns out to be the direction humanity is headed. On this view of the future of the species, politics are irrelevant. “Marxist, Communist, and Totalitarian ideology,” Lévi-Strauss said, “is only a stratagem of history to promote the faster Westernization of peoples who until recent times have remained on the periphery.” This is why the tropics are sad. They have been co-opted into a self-destructive organism. 

The worldview of The Family of Man is not different. In a completely unscientific way, the show suggested that cultural differences are unimportant, that the essence of life is not progress but reproduction, and that humans are, at bottom, just another species temporarily inhabiting the planet. Steichen and everyone else involved in the exhibition would probably have been horrified to be called anti-humanist. But the viewers going out passing the viewers coming in must have had the brief sensation that we are all ants on the same doomed anthill. That’s the argument of Tristes Tropiques.