Early in the 1950s, one of America’s greatest photographers grew “sick at heart.”  What was the world coming to?  H-bomb tests were spreading terror.  First graders were crouching under desks, ducking and covering.  Humanity seemed ugly, savage, doomed.  Were we no better than this?

We have survived everything and we have only survived it on our optimism.  
— Edward Steichen

        On January 24, 1955, a photo exhibit opened at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art.  The photos, from around the world, showed ordinary people working, playing, dreaming.  The photographer was pleased.  The people, Edward Steichen said, “looked at the pictures, and the people in the pictures looked back at them.  They recognized each other.”

        Today,The Family of Man is a coffee table book.  You may have leafed through it, pausing at a photo or two.  But during the darkest days of the Cold War, Edward Steichen’s vision touched the world.  A million saw it in Japan, still more in India.  The Family of Man drew crowds across Europe.  In Guatemala, Mayan Indians came out of the hills to see.  The Family of Man was seen in Teheran, Johannesburg, Moscow, Kabul. . .  This singular show, hopeful and enduring, became our family portrait.


        Edward Steichen was an icon of American photography.  His career dated to the 1900s when he and Alfred Stieglitz opened 291, the first gallery to treat photography as art. Steichen moved on to photograph fashion, nature, any subject that would reveal “that charlatan, Light.”

        By 1950, Steichen, then in his 70s, hadn’t had a show in years.  At MoMA, his job title was Curator.  One of his first exhibits focused on war, “the most forceful indictment of the subject ever put forth by photography,” he thought.  Reactions appalled Steichen.  People would praise the photos, he said, “and then go out and have some drinks.”  As the Cold War deepened, as extinction loomed over humanity, he wondered.  Why not use photography to show “how all people were in all parts of the world?”

        For the next four years, Steichen gathered images.  He toured Europe, bringing home 300 prints.  He spoke to Bay Area photographers, including Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams.  “Some of them thought he was kind of goofy,” Steichen’s assistant Wayne Miller recalled, “full of pie-in-the-sky ideas.”  But Lange, whose Depression photos captured human despair, understood.  She put out a call for photos to “show Man to Man across the world. . . Nothing short of that will do.”  


        Working sixteen-hour days, Steichen and his assistants scoured the archives of Time, Life, and worldwide photo syndicates.  They culled through family snapshots and professional portfolios.  From 3 million entries, 10,000 made the first cut.  Then came the “heart-breaking” work, selecting 500.  These were sorted into categories — birth, love, war, family, death. . .  Each photo embodied Steichen’s bedrock belief in the human spirit.  ”We have survived everything,” he said, “and we have only survived it on our optimism.  And optimism means faith in ourselves, faith in the everydayness of our lives.”

        To stitch themes together, Steichen turned to an old friend, photographer Dorothy Norman.  Norman pored through poetry, scripture, and folklore, eventually handing Steichen a thousand quotes on index cards.  Then came the task of reproduction — printing 500 museum-quality photos not on some digital printer but in darkrooms, with film, chemicals, and paper all at the whim of that charlatan.

        Finally. . .

        On the eve of MoMA’s members-only premiere, Steichen was frantic.  What if the photos were too disjointed?  What about the only color image — a wall-sized mushroom cloud?  Was it too terrifying?  What if. . . what if. . .

        Steichen’s fears were quickly soothed.  Looking at people’s faces as they looked at the world’s faces, he knew he had touched a nerve.  When the show opened to the public, lines stretched around the block.  Critics raved.  Here was “the universality of human emotions.”  Here was “the whole story of mankind.”  There were cynics, of course, dismissing such “sentimental humanism,” but the world soon put the cynics in their place.

        Over the next eight years, The Family of Man was shown in 69 countries, drawing nine million people.  The coffee table book, still in print, sold millions more.  

        We could use The Family of Man these days. The anger, the fear, the cynics are still with us.  From darkness, it seems, come visions of light.  The show’s title came not from the Cold War but from the Civil War.  Steichen found the phrase in Carl Sandburg’s biography of Lincoln.  On the Fourth of July in 1861, Lincoln told Congress that the war posed a question — could democracy survive?  The question, Lincoln said, confronted “the whole family of man.”

        During another dark time, the Depression, Sandburg wove the phrase into his poem The People, Yes.

        The people know the salt of the sea

        and the strength of the winds

        lashing the corners of the earth.

        The people take the earth

        as a tomb of rest and a cradle of hope.

        Who else speaks for the Family of Man?