Family of Man
Touted as the “greatest photographic exhibition of all time,” Family of Man was an exhibition of photographs curated by celebrated Luxembourgish-American photographer Edward Steichen. It was first exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, USA from January 24 to May 8, 1955. Under its philosophy of “the essential oneness of mankind across the world”, the exhibition gathered images submitted by photographers from over sixty five countries, depicting the different stages in a human being’s life, from birth to death. The exhibition space itself was divided based on “universal” themes such as childbirth, love, dance, work and death, with unframed images of varying sizes floating within the space under each theme. The exhibition catalogue, which was designed by author and illustrator Leo Lionni and featured both images from the exhibition as well as literary quotations from around the world, had a circulation of over five million copies and is still in print today.
Following its exhibition at the MoMA, Family of Man travelled to thirty seven countries and was reportedly seen by over nine million people by 1961. It travelled to seven cities in India from 1956–57 with the support of the United States Information Services — namely Agra, Bombay (now Mumbai), Calcutta (now Kolkata), Delhi, Trivandrum (now Thiruananthapuram), Ahmedabad and Madras (now Chennai). The exhibition included thirteen images of India, out of which only one was taken by an Indian. The rest were were all by international photographers – mostly photojournalists such as Werner Bischof, Constantin Joffé and William Vandivert – and depicted scenes of poverty and suffering.The exception was a photograph attributed to Satyajit Ray, which was in fact a still from his film Pather Panchali (1955) and was most likely taken not by the filmmaker himself, but by the cinematographer of the film, Subrato Mitra.
Within scholarship, the exhibition has come to be heavily scrutinised over time. The claims made by the exhibition of the “essential oneness” of the human condition and the fundamental equality of mankind have been severely criticised. In particular, critics have noted the imbalance between the conditions of different nations and how they were represented in the exhibition. The efforts of sending the exhibition on a world tour have additionally been read as an act of propaganda by the US during the Cold War.
In 1994, Family of Man was installed permanently at the Clervaux Castle, Luxembourg. It was made a part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2003.
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