The Family of Man is an exhibition of photos mounted by Edward J. Steichen in 1955 for the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). While offering infinitely diverse images of human beings living in the 1950s, it nevertheless emphatically reminds visitors that they all belong to the same big family. The 32 themes, arranged chronologically, reflect the subjects’ joys and sadnesses, their satisfactions and their unhappinesses, and their longing for peace, but also the reality of bloody conflict. They emphasize the role of democratic structures and, in the exhibition’s conclusion, the United Nations’ role as the only body capable of saving the world from the “scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and [of reaffirming] faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small” (Charter of the United Nations).
Regarded as the “greatest photographic enterprise ever undertaken”, it consists of 503 photographs taken by 273 photographers, both professional and amateur, famous and unknown, from 68 countries. A huge undertaking, with unique cultural and artistic dimensions, it had a considerable influence on other exhibition organizers, stirred public interest in photography and its tremendous ability to communicate, and conveyed a personal, humanist message that was both courageous and provocative.
Although the Family of Man has become a legend in the history of photography, it went far beyond the traditional view of what an exhibition should be. It may be regarded as the memory of an entire era, that of the Cold War and McCarthyism, in which the hopes and aspirations of millions of men and women throughout the world were focused on peace.
Steichen’s undertaking is still unique of its kind. Several photographic exhibitions were more or less clearly inspired by it, for example The Family of Children and The Family of Women by Jerry Mason, and the First World Photography Exhibition organized by Karl Pawek in the 1960s for Stern magazine, but none of them matched the visual dimension or the artistic coherence of the original American exhibition.
The very personal approach of Steichen arouses interest and exercises minds to this day:
There was a new surge of interest in the exhibition following the opening of the Clervaux museum. Since June 1994 the museum has attracted over 163,000 visitors from all over the world, not counting the 50,000 who went to see the restored collection in Toulouse, Tokyo and Hiroshima in 1992 and in the winter of 1993-1994, 38 years after the first tour. This was the final “round-the-world” trip by the exhibition before it was permanently installed in the museum.