Monday, June 25, 2012

Family of Man

In 1955 Edward Steichen, Museum of Modern Art curator of photography, mounted a monumental exhibit entitled The Family of Man. The premise of the show was to draw together, through photography,  common elements of diverse cultures around the world to demonstrate (in a Jungian context) that we are all one, no matter what our obvious differences. The show was controversial in its time, and has continued to generate fitful controversy over the years. A catalogue of the photographs was published along with the show with an introduction by Carl Sandburg who was Steichen's brother-in-law. The city of Clervaux in Luxembourg (Steichen's country of birth) boasts the only extant version of the exhibit. You can read a commentary of the exhibit and it's critics here. A modern reprint of the book that accompanied the show is available on Amazon.

This evening, after once again finding absolutely nothing of interest on either broadcast or cable television, I happened to pull the catalog from my shelf of photography books. It was a joy to look at. When I was first studying photography at the New School my photo mentor, Mario Cabrera, encouraged me to spend all of my free time either shooting pictures or looking at them. Whenever I had a few extra bucks in my pocket I'd search for coffee table monographs of photographers who's work impressed me. I'd spend some time looking through them, and then shelve them to be picked up at a later date. As I looked at the work this time, what I found particularly interesting was that all of the photographs were b/w. The absence of color had a powerful impact on how I focused in on the entire collection - there was an uninterrupted flow to the context that contributed greatly to the continuity and story of the entire work.

Viewing works that project such profound eloquence, charm, and humor reminds me of my music listening experiences. When I hear a recording of Jascha Heifetz playing a particular piece of music, I feel like totally giving up playing the violin - I could never, in my wildest dreams come close to achieving that kind of technical and music mastery. And yet, when I hear the same pieces played by David Oistrakh or Fritz Kreisler, I want to pick up my instrument, pull out the music, and practice. I have never seen photo work that would make me want to give up shooting, but when I spend time with The Family of Man collection, or the works of many other photographers, I'm inspired to get out and shoot, to use my visual voice to express my view of the world in which I live.

Apropos of nothing mentioned above, here's a shot of a not-too-happy volunteer.