The Family of Man has been described as “probably the most successful exhibition in the history of photography“(1), self-subtitled as “the greatest photographic exhibition of all time“, and has been on UNESCO’s “Memory of the World” Register since 2003 (2).
So where would you expect an exhibition of this cultural magnitude to be permanently located? New York, perhaps? One of the great galleries of London or Paris?
Nope. It’s in Clervaux.
Background and history
Clervaux, a small town in the north of Luxembourg, initially seems far removed from the glamour and sophistication of the world of high culture. A modest whitewashed castle rises from a rock overlooking the town centre, framed neatly by the surrounding forested hills. A few turrets point skywards with ambitions of fairy-tale magic, then seem to immediately lose heart and end up barely making it above the slate rooftops. Solid and handsome is Clervaux Castle, showing little outward signs of the treasure that lies within (apart from the banners, that is…).
The Family of Man is, to put it mildly, a rather important collection of photographs. To understand how this historic exhibition ended up in a provincial town in the Luxembourgish Ardennes, we need to become acquainted with this man: Edward Steichen.
Born in Luxembourg in 1879, Steichen emigrated to the United States as an infant and had a long and distinguished career in the arts (notably photography), including a 17-year stint as Director of Photography at the New York Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA”). It was in this role that he was responsible for overseeing The Family of Man exhibition.
Preparation began in the early 1950s, with Steichen publishing a worldwide public request for photos on the rather broad theme of “the gamut of human relations”. The response was overwhelming: Steichen received approximately four million photographs, thus justifying his declaration that this was “the most ambitious and challenging [photography] project … ever attempted“. Somehow he (and, presumably, a small army of assistants at the MoMA) narrowed this down to a shortlist of 10,000 photos, and eventually, by 1954, the 503 images that together would form the final exhibition.
When the collection finally opened at the MoMA on 26th January 1955 it was an immediate success, with record-breaking attendances and long queues outside the museum doors. The success story continued as the fêted collection toured other American cities and then around the world, attracting acclaim and crowds wherever it went. Intentional or not, photography proved itself to be the ideal means of explaining man to man, effortlessly transcending culture, background, language and other differences. By the time the tour ended in 1962, the photographs had been seen by over 9 million people in 39 countries and over 150 exhibition venues. The accompanying photobook – which is still in print today, and frequently adorns my coffee table – has sold over 4 million copies.
In short, The Family of Man was a big hit (3), and it became clear that it needed a permanent home for a long and graceful retirement. As a nod of appreciation to the country of his birth, Steichen arranged for the entire collection to be donated to the Luxembourg State. True to his wishes, photographs from the collection have been proudly displayed in Clervaux Castle since the mid 1970s and the exhibition in its entirety since 1994.
The Family of Man takes the form of a photographic essay, dealing with the grand circle of human life from our first wailing moments to the solemnity of death. However, upon entering the crisp, recently-renovated exhibition space, the first photos that you see are not of birth, but love; everything starts with love. A passionate embrace between an American couple, a stolen kiss on the banks of the Seine, a quiet moment under a tree in Italy. Then comes scenes of marriage, pregnancy and childbirth, from India, Sweden, Mexico, Japan and others.
The images may have been collected from all over the world, but it is immediately obvious that the stories being played out in these extraordinary photos are fundamentally the same. In every nation, every culture, every community, people fall in love, commit to spending their lives together and – more often than not – new life springs forth. Without a single explanatory note, the underlying message of The Family of Man is crystal clear:
We are one.
As the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet (and, conveniently, Steichen’s brother-in-law) Carl Sandburg puts it in the prologue to the exhibition:
“The first cry of a newborn baby in Chicago or Zamboango, in Amsterdam or Rangoon, has the same pitch and key, each saying, ´I am! I have come through! I belong! I am a member of the Family!` “
A visit to this legendary collection is therefore a journey through the common themes of mankind itself – childhood, family life, friendship, education, work, leisure, food, music, religion, war, growing old… The images – incredibly evocative and technically brilliant images from 68 countries and 273 different photographers – form a unique testament to the wide spectrum of humanity.
Then, inevitably, comes death. But the exhibition doesn’t end there, nor does it linger for long. Why should it? Almost immediately, the visitor is ushered forward with these words attributed to Kobo-Daishi:
“Flow, flow, flow, the current of life is ever onwards”
A new circle of life has commenced, and once more the images are of childhood, of fresh hope. But the message is more blurred now, more complicated, and the frenzied images of hope and new life are interspersed with scenes of grief, sorrow, love and joy. We are one, but trying to classify our outrageously complex emotions and behaviours into neat categories is impossible. We are one, but we are all different and we should rejoice in our diversity.
What the kids thought of it
My children found the exhibition to be fascinating and thought-provoking. My daughter – the more naturally artistic of my two eldest kids – was highly observant of the symbolism present throughout. For example, she pointed out to me that a series of photographs of people holding hands in a circle was, itself, arranged in a circle, and reflected on what that could mean.
She also was quite taken by a photo of a girl sitting alone on a bench, knees bent and head buried deep in her folded arms. Behind the girl – indeed, taking up most of the photograph – was a bare, blank wall. Through this barren scene shone the utmost feeling of loneliness, of despair; an image so powerful and yet so simple that an eight-year old could immediately sense its meaning.
My boy, on the other hand, is more impressed with technical details than artistic fineries. He spent some time poring over a photo of a fabulously ornate concert hall, packed to the rafters with an expectant crowd (the central image of the photo below). Despite the organised chaos of detail and the mass of gathered humanity, he noted that one thing still stands out – the face of the conductor. My son was curious to know why this was; why the eye was attracted to this small feature at the bottom of this huge image. (Expectancy? Lighting? Brilliant composition? Probably all three and more…)
And we unanimously agreed that perhaps the most striking photo in the entire exhibition is the very final one. Entitled “Walk to paradise garden“, this iconic image captured by W.Eugene Smith shows his own children walking hand-in-hand away from the camera into the woods. It effortlessly and instantly conjures up emotions of hope, discovery, innocence and freedom; we don’t know where his (our?) children are going, but we can intuitively sense that it is somewhere good, that there is something wonderful lying ahead.
Unfortunately, for copyright reasons, I cannot fully reproduce any of the above-mentioned photos in this article. So if you wish to see them, you’ll just have to visit The Family of Man exhibition for yourself (Google may also help). In the meantime, here’s another of my daughter’s favourites which I am permitted to share.
Many thanks to Anke of Steichen Collections CNA for her assistance and patience during the writing of this article.
Practical tips for visiting The Family of Man.
- Clervaux is located about an hour north of Luxembourg City. It is easily accessible by car (just off the E421, well signposted) and train (Line 10).
- Pay attention to the opening hours!
- 12h00 to 18h00, Wednesday to Sunday, March to December.
- In other words, it is CLOSED in the mornings, on Mondays and Tuesdays (except public holidays), and in January and February. If in doubt, please check the website in advance.
- Tickets cost €6, with youths (under 21) going free. This includes the use of a multimedia guide in English, French or German (2016 prices).
- If – like us – you arrive in Clervaux far too early and need to kill time before the exhibition opens, then fear not: also located in the castle is a quirky and rather excellent collection of replica models of Luxembourg’s castles (€3.50, concessions apply). Additionally, there is a museum dealing with some local WWII battles.
- There are plenty of dining possibilities in the town centre, which is immediately adjacent to the castle.
Daisy the bus visited The Family of Man in December 2016.
(c) Jonathan Orr 2017
References and notes:
(1) Jay, B., 1992. “Occam’s razor: an outside-in view of contemporary photography”
(3) Or, to be more precise, The Family of Man was a big hit with the general public. Certain members of the artistic community and photographic intelligentsia were not so enamoured by the collection, and it has been criticised as being over-sentimental, oppressive of individual artistic merit, and even downright vulgar. Sour grapes? Probably…
Quotations in the text above not otherwise referenced come from the official The Family of Man book, published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
This is not a sponsored article and I have not received compensation for writing it. All links above are to external websites over which I have no control and do not assume any responsibility