The Family of Man: Photography Exhibition that Everybody Loves to Hate

"The Family of Man: Photography Exhibition that Everybody Loves to Hate," FK Magazine, forthcoming in 2018. This is unedited working draft. If you would like to cite this article, please get in touch with me at atifentale at gradcenter dot cuny dot edu. Thank you!

“The greatest photographic exhibition of all time—503 pictures from 68 countries—created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art,” says the cover of the photo-book accompanying exhibition The Family of Man. The exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern art (MoMA), New York, from January 24 to May 8, 1955. It was highly popular—the press claimed that more than a quarter of million people saw it in New York. But it gained its central role in the twentieth century photography history largely because of its international exposure. The U.S. Information Agency popularized The Family of Man as an achievement of American culture by presenting ten different versions of the show in 91 cities in 38 countries between 1955 and 1962, seen by estimated nine million people But, contrary to the popular reception, scholarly criticism of the exhibition was—and continues to be—scathing. 

The Family of Man has a unique place in the history of photography. Most other exhibitions that have made their mark in history are avant-garde, innovative explorations—such as, for example, Pressa (Cologne, 1928), Film und Foto (Stuttgart, 1929), New Documents (New York, 1967), or New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (Rochester, 1975). Scholars constantly look back at these exhibitions, review and revise their interpretations, and always try to find new reasons why they are important.

he Family of Man, however, never was an avant-garde or even particularly innovative exhibition. Its general message—that all people are similar in their joys, pain, and work—was not especially thought-provoking, unexpected, or radical. Its design was attractive, but by no means ground-breaking. Scholars constantly look back at it, but they are on a mission to find new faults and shortcomings. And it seems that The Family of Man keeps providing endless reasons to hate it, despite those few historians who have attempted to analyze the show in a more benevolent light. There is no other single exhibition in history of photography that has been able to irritate several generations of historians. And we are not done yet.