© Romain Girtgen

Transforming Experiences Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man"

11 minutes

Me, human
Destination(s): Éislek

Scarcely beyond the entrance and I’m already hooked. A swirl of stars in the black universe, then the belly of a pregnant woman, half in shadow, half in light. The nucleus of life. In black and white. The colours, though, are there, in your head and your heart. As are the emotions. There’s something big going on here.

“The Family of Man” – a personal experience.

The people in the room with me seem to be far away. What are they thinking about? Where do they see themselves in this exhibition?

© Romain Girtgen

Each of us began as a speck of stardust and will be so again. Each of us was a pulsating bundle of cells in our mother’s belly, before developing and being catapulted into the world as a human. Into a life that is colourful and monotone, noisy and silent, beautiful and dreadful. Welcome to “The Family of Man”. I have to turn away from the other visitors at the exhibition briefly, because I have tears in my eyes. 

A visit to “The Family of Man” exhibition is a highly intense experience. Perfectly staged, skilfully lit, it is an understated total artwork that appears to have grown naturally. Every visit reveals something new. 

What should a portrait of humanity look like? What are the key themes? Each picture in the exhibition seems to hang exactly where it belongs, giving the impression of an organic entity. Accompanying the pictures are passages from Shakespeare, James Joyce, Thomas Paine and Lillian Smith. They’re just there, alongside, with no explanatory captions. “Deep inside, in a silent place where a child’s fears crouch.” This quote from the writer Lillian Smith, printed in white on black, appears alongside pictures of children, girls and boys, who are obviously poor, who look at the camera in resignation or despair, standing behind barbed wire, in front of a bleak landscape, sometimes with their mothers, in whose eyes you can also see that life is hard. Three little girls stand in front of a small, isolated house surrounded by an overgrown meadow. They grip the fence and stare at me gravely, the older two dark-haired, the youngest blonde. It makes me think of my own girls. Two tall brunettes, one small blonde. They are about the same age as the girls in the photo, about whom I know nothing. Neither what became of them nor how long they lived. And yet I feel a connection with them. Simply because I have seen them.

And so it goes on – through the exhibition and through the cycle of life. Childhood with or without schooling, hard work, but also parties and friendship, love and sexuality, faith, struggles and wars – every aspect of what it is to be human is shown here. Steichen brought these people together, regardless of their race, gender or class. Through the photographs, he wanted to find a common language. 

© Romain Girtgen

Some of the photographs were taken by well-known photographers of their time, others by amateurs. Steichen’s friend Dorothea helped him to find the right ones. Out of millions of pictures, they and their assistants selected just over 500 photographs from 68 countries, and civil rights activist Dorothy Norman compiled the accompanying quotations from world literature and contemporary documents.

The pictures were first displayed at MoMA in New York and the exhibition then toured the whole world. Steichen’s work was successful, but he was also criticised, perhaps precisely because the general public liked the exhibition and elitist critics couldn’t handle that. Following its years on tour as from 1966, the exhibition has been in Clervaux since 1994, and will probably stay there forever. Steichen, who was born in Bivange, wanted the pictures to remain in Luxembourg, his home country, and be on display here.

© Romain Girtgen

Childhood with or without schooling, hard work, but also parties and friendship, love and sexuality, faith, struggles and wars – every aspect of what it is to be human is shown here. 

It is an exhibition that stays in your memory.  Even after my visit, my thoughts go back to the pictures in Clervaux. To the old couple on a swing, flying high together and laughing. And to the baby snuggling up to its mother. Because it could be any baby. Including mine. 

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