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Through a Lens Darkly

by Phoebe-Lou Adams

THE announcement, shaped like a galley proof, which the Museum of Modern Art in New York hands out these days to visitors is headed "THE FAMILY OF MAN -- an exhibition of creative photography, dedicated to the dignity of man, with examples from 68 countries, conceived and executed by Edward Steichen, assisted by Wayne Miller; installation designed by Paul Rudolf," and contains a prologue by Carl Sandburg at his most runic:

There is only one man in the world
and his name is All Men.
There is only one woman in the world
and her name is All Women.
There is only one child in the world
and the child's name is All Children.
The dignity of man has survived so many pratfalls in the past that it's probably in small danger from the dedication of Mr. Steichen and his colleagues, but the nature of their efforts to bolster what they must suspect is a losing cause reveals that All Men, All Women, and All Children haven't moved a step beyond the Stone Age. The photographs on display are as fine as skill and good cameras can make them. The technique is of the twentieth century. The show itself is arranged as a piece of sympathetic magic.

The first step is to establish that mankind is all one, which is accomplished by sorting the photographs into groups, each of which shows people of varied races and nationalities doing approximately the same thing. The method limits subject matter to the simplest kinds of activity, and the purpose precludes the appearance of any rebels or doubters. If mankind is to be all one, it can't be shown galloping off in all directions. The next step is to prove that mankind is all good. Deliberate evil has been carefully excluded; there are dead men, but no murderers.

With these points established by Mr. Steichen's editing, the composite effigy of the human race is ready to be saved. Virtuous, patient, affectionate, pious, and hard-working, it goes about its affairs, endures the threat of extinction, and emerges in a Utopia populated by happy children. Evidently Mr. Steichen, like the Ice Age hunter who drew deer on cave walls to entice herds into his territory, hopes that events will follow the picture pattern.

Presumably the powers the display is designed to propitiate, whatever they are, are unimaginative and even a trifle myopic, with a weakness for the obvious example, the facile tear, and the literal meaning. The style of the exhibition as a whole is Life's reportorial style, unrelieved by the explosions of fantasy and experiment that enliven that magazine. Mr. Steichen's choice is the surface of things, reproduced as clearly as possible with a nice moderate respectable gloss. He tolerates a bit of odd perspective (photographers will lean out of windows occasionally, it seems) but no nonsense with symbolism, distortion, combined images, or anything else that might suggest an individual point of view behind the camera. Creative seems not quite the right term for this style. Transferred to writing, for instance, it would put a news reporter in the same line of business as a novelist.

The exhibition opens on the museum stairway with a close-up of a Congo tribesman alongside one of a stone head from "Art in the Ice Age." These are surrounded by a scatter of figures from cave paintings copied directly on the wall in red paint, which implies that Mr. Steichen is quite conscious of his role as warlock. The landing outside the gallery proper offers a large, beautiful seascape, a pregnant nude carefully lighted to exaggerate the resemblance to a primitive fertility image, and quotations from the Egyptian Legend of Creation, Laotse, and Genesis, having to do with the beginnings of the world.

All this text is rather surprising, since pictures are generally expected to speak for themselves, but the designers of "The Family of Man" leave no loopholes for random error. Each section of the show has its appropriate quotation, like incantations accompanying a ritual. Nobody can misunderstand a bevy of couples rolling in grass, hay, sheets, and sand dunes when these pictures are reinforced by the prose of James Joyce. "...and then he asked me would I yes ... and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes"

There are only about half as many photographs of weddings as of courtships. They're considerably less active, too.

It's no surprise to find that the next stop is motherhood, although the white gauze pavilion suspended from the ceiling to enclose this department is downright unforeseeable on the museum's normally austere premises. In this maternal corner, handsome not-too-pregnant girls recline among potted geraniums, in doorframes, and with kittens. There are a few restrained shots of parturition, including one of an Eskimo woman who appears to be bird-watching, and a yelling baby held up by the heels. Then come three shots of nursing mothers, very décolleté, with a line from Euripides, "And shall not loveliness be loved forever."

The inevitable baby show is followed by pictures of children's games, including a delightful sequence by Ruth Orkin of three kids playing cards with much giggling and argument. Mothers with children are labeled "She is a tree of life to them." Then come frightened children with six out of thirteen poses possibly play-acting on the part of the subjects, and fathers with children. There are no Oedipal shadows in this sharply focused world, and a chant from the Kwakiutl Indian proves it: --

When I am a man, then I shall be a hunter,
When I am a man, then I shall be a harpooneer [sic],
When I am a man, then I shall be a canoe-builder,
When I am a man, then I shall be a carpenter,
When I am a man, then I shall be an artisan,
O Father! ya ha ha ha.
There's no doubt that the exhibit proves the unity of mankind when it gets to family group portraits. A posed family photograph looks exactly the same whether it's African, Asian, or European. The dog may be fat or thin, but the people have identical expressions of slightly apprehensive satisfaction.


WITH the family established as a happy, if slightly camera-shy unit, All Men and All Women can go to work. They do. It's positively exhausting to see the orgy of planting, reaping, chopping, digging, sewing, bomb-making, fishing, building up, tearing down, cooking, weeding, sheepherding, mining, welding, scrubbing, and small parts assembling that takes place on the museum walls. All Men manages to stop for a drink of water and All Women sits momentarily on the sidewalk to rummage through a trash box. This picture, by Dorothea Lange, is one of the few really comic pieces in the collection. In general, though, nobody loafs on the job. Nobody makes rugs or fine cabinetwork, or carves ladles out of whalebone. The exhibit takes no account anywhere of those occupations that border on the arts.

Things quiet down with schooling, a field where there seem to be neither recalcitrant pupils nor querulous parents, but Nat Farbman's picture of a Bechuanaland bard and his laughing audience is lively, great fun and, like all Farbman's work, beautiful to look at. There is also in this section a not unpredictable portrait of Dr. Einstein.

The exhibition now spirals into a large room where it is impossible to decide on the order in which things are to be viewed. Music gets short shrift, and the determination to cover the globe seems to have lapsed. Singing is represented as a pastoral, amateur diversion. Dancing fares better -- more space and a particularly striking shot of laughing, black-robed women photographed in French West Africa by Eric Schwab. There is no attempt to indicate that practice or intelligence may underlie music or dancing.

Eating and drinking, by comparison, fare very well and at much greater length. Werner Bischof provides a finely balanced, expressive picture of Hungarians arguing over a bottle-ridden table; there's a cross-section of Frenchmen at their food, by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassai, and Hans Schreiner. The vacant or ambiguous faces common in other sections of the exhibit are not to be seen here. These subjects really have their hearts in their occupation.

Having dealt with the practical side of human life, the show moves on to more spiritual levels. There are several funeral scenes and a couple of romantically disheveled graveyards; death is a subject confined to easily comprehensible western custom. No firecrackers or towers of silence. There are, pellmell, loneliness, sympathy, hope, and faith. The photographs representing loneliness are exceptionally good. One by Louis Clyde Stoumen of a little Negro girl moping on a beach which has the long-drawn perspective of nightmare is really haunting. The shoulder-patting gesture is repeated so often to express sympathy that it loses all meaning, and photographs that are first-class in themselves become faintly comic. Hope, or perhaps more accurately aspiration, juxtaposes a portrait of Toscanini (hung too high) and a photograph of a cute small child poking at piano keys. Faith is an assortment of dignified religious ceremonies. There is no hint of fanaticism or disagreement.

In the needless apprehension that some spectators may still be unaware of the point of the exhibition, Mr. Steichen now indulges in a bit of practical theater. Beside Bertrand Russell's sourly sensible statement that "authorities are unanimous in saying a war with hydrogen bombs is quite likely to put an end to the human race" are a group of heads, Mexican, American, Italian, Japanese, Negro, Indochinese, Austrian, and Polish, surrounding a rather smoky mirror. Any unwary spectator will find himself right in the picture gallery. If that doesn't make him hear the rattle of bones and the chuckle spread from ear to ear, he's just a mean old individualist.

Still groggy with the shock of self-recognition, the spectator is hustled before a large color photograph of a hydrogen bomb explosion located, quite properly for a ritual mystery, in a small dark alcove. Unfortunately for the climactic effect, this explosion looks like any other splash of orange fire, not as stimulating as a good Fourth of July display perhaps, but a handsome thing in its way.

Encouragement is provided around the corner by a study of the United Nations in action, and consolation by lyrical pictures of romping children and sunlit seas intended to suggest that disaster is not inevitable. There's a possibility that they indicate a spiritual rebirth as well. Either way, mankind is back in the second grade and enjoying every minute of it.

This is the end of the ritual. Humanity has survived the symbolic ordeal and can continue safely on the old road. If Mr. Steichen's well-intentioned spell doesn't work, it can only be because he has been so intent on the physical similarities that unite "The Family of Man"' that he has neglected to conjure the intangible beliefs and preferences that divide men into countries and parties and clans. And he has utterly forgotten that a family quarrel can be as fierce as any other kind.

Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; April 1955; Through a Lens Darkly - 55.04; Volume 195, No. 4; page 69-72.