The Family of Man

In the mid- 1950s, an entire photo exhibition went “viral”. And it is still going strong today, permanently displayed in a handsome castle in Luxembourg. So what did my kids make of it?

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.

“Where?”


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…).

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The Family of Man, Clervaux Castle (c) CNA / Romain Girtgen, 2013

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.

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Edward Steichen, Self-Portrait with Camera c. 1917 (c) 2015 The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York

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 exhibition

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!` “

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The Family of Man, Clervaux Castle (c) CNA / Romain Girtgen, 2013

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.

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Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time & Life (c) Getty Images

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

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It is somewhat ironic that I forgot my camera on the day we visited what is quite possibly the world’s most significant photographic exhibition… My humble apologies for this weirdly squashed iPhone photo of my kids outside the exhibition hall.

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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…)

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The Family of Man, Clervaux Castle (c) CNA / Romain Girtgen, 2013

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.

Enjoy!

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Eugene Harris, Popular Photography

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

Oregon Girl Around the World

References and notes:

(1)   Jay, B., 1992. “Occam’s razor: an outside-in view of contemporary photography”

(2) http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/memory-of-the-world/register/full-list-of-registered-heritage/registered-heritage-page-3/family-of-man/

(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

Author: daisythebus

Father-of-four based in Luxembourg. I write about "off the beaten track" travel adventures with my family. Expect to read about nature, outdoor activities, the arts, authenticity, and alternative ways of discovering the world around us.

31 thoughts on “The Family of Man”

  1. This sounds like such an interesting and important exhibition. I love anything photography anyway so I would be in heaven. I also really like taking my children to things like this, it’s always so interesting what they notice and what they come out with! 🙂 #culturedkids

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  2. Looks like a fascinating exhibition, I had not heard if it before. The photographer looks like a modern day actor but I cannot put my finger on who!

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  3. Fascinating post about an photography exhibition I’d never heard of, but would love to see! As ever, it is beautifully written and packs so much background information. I am impressed by your children’s flair on observing these amazing photos. Many thanks for sharing such an intriguing gem! x
    #FarawayFiles

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  4. What a wonderful exhibition and national treasure for Luxembourg. Some of the photos you have shown display such joy on the faces of the people photographed. I think it’s amazing these moments were captured in only a few frames whereas today we would have much more difficulty with almost infinite resources. I would love to visit Clervaux Castle and see it for myself. Thanks for sharing on #farawayFiles

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  5. Fantastic informative post. I started reading and felt rather ashamed that I’d never heard of the exhibition previously but, even without seeing the photos, I feel much more informed now. Would be an interesting experiment to run an updated exhibition, based on the photographs of today, although I guess most of the themes would be pretty similar. #Farawayfiles

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    1. I’ve read that The Family of Man has spawned a few tributes and “updated” exhibitions (look at Wikipedia for a nice summary and analysis) but – to my knowledge – none of these achieved anything resembling the success of the original. But perhaps the current political climate is such that a contemporary follow-up would be well-received? I for one would love to see it.

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  6. The picture of the woman playing the flute grabbed my attention immediately – this exhibition sounds like the sort of place you could lose yourself in for hours. I have to admit I hadn’t come across it before, but I like the fact that it’s tucked away in Clervaux (a place that’s also new to me!). I like your descriptions of the different reactions of your children. Sometimes ar can really bring differences in personality to the fore. Thanks for sharing with #CulturedKids!

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  7. Well this is fascinating and definitely the kind of exhibition which would have me travelling for hours to see. You write about it so well, no wonder I’m excited about it.
    #culturedkids

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  8. The photos in the exhibition really are fabulous, a snapshot in time. What a wonderful opportunity. The building itself is a little fairytale castle as well! Thanks for sharing with #culturedkids

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  9. I loved this article. Your description of the photos and how we are all one was so relevant to our current world situation and brought tears to my eyes. I hope to one day visit this exhibition, thank you for sharing such an inspiring post! #farawayfiles

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    1. Thank you for the really kind comment. One of the factors behind the enduring appeal of the exhibition is that it is still highly relevant today, more than sixty years after it was first displayed. In fact, as you pointed out, the messages of hope, unity and celebration of diversity in “The Family of Man” are probably more relevant today than at any time since it was first exhibited. I truly hope that you get to visit Luxembourg to see it one day.

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  10. I would love to see this. Studied the history of photography at university (my favorite is Imogen Cunningham, but I digress!). Amazing that this collection has been preserved in one place. We recently saw the Steve McCurry exhibition when it was a the Fredericksborg Castle in Denmark. And while that was a showcase of only one photographer, I think his images offer a similar sentiment that we are all but one family of man. Tell your son that the conductor picture has all the elements of a spectacular composition and YES – you are supposed to focus on him. Amazing. Thanks for sharing with #FarawayFiles! Erin

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    1. Thanks for the sweet comment. If I’d known you had an education in the history of photography, I would have been rather nervous submitting this one to #FarawayFiles – I was on a steep learning curve here! Glad that you liked it, and definitely come to Luxembourg to check this legendary exhibition out sometime. Also glad to know that my son and I interpreted the conductor photo correctly – what an incredible image!! Thanks again for hosting this great link-up.

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      1. No pressure at all! I don’t think you need an education to appreciate art – it’s all about how YOU perceive a piece anyway… what the viewer brings to the viewing. There is no right or wrong way to look at art. Despite what the critics might have you believe! Thanks for sharing – super cool.

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  11. I HAVE to see this, Jonny! Sounds like my perfect exhibition – I could spend all day looking at photos like these. And don’t you think Edward Steichen bears an uncanny resemblance to Tom Hiddleston? He’d have to play him in the film, which they surely should make. Thanks for sharing more Luxembourg gems on #FarawayFiles

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    1. I totally agree – everyone should see this exhibition at least once. Whatever your opinion on the message and artistic implications of the collection as a whole, the individual photographs are undeniably brilliant. To see so many amazing images in one (beautiful) place is worth a trip to Luxembourg alone.

      I was hoping they would choose me in the title role of the film, but, sadly, I must concede that Tom Hiddleston probably has a better CV 😉 Thanks for reading!

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  12. Wow. That’s amazing. I hadn’t heard of it before and would love to see it. Not entirely similar but a bit similar is a photographic archive of the national newspaper that we had access to in Hanoi. I still have a print of an original photo of Ho Chi Minh at his typewriter.

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  13. I hadn no idea that this was in Luxembourg! I was just reading about this for part of my PhD! Did they talk about it in context of the cold war propaganda machine? It sits on the line between propaganda and cultural diplomacy! I might have to make a trip to Luxembourg

    This was so useful thanks #farawayfiles

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    1. Great that you found this so interesting and relevant to your studies! Before reading your comment I wasn’t aware of the exhibition’s world tour being sponsored by an American anti-propaganda organisation – very intriguing! If you’d like more information for your PhD I can put you in touch with someone from the Steichen Collection – just DM me if you’re interested. Thanks for reading!

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