Steichen’s Family of Man Restored: New Life for a Photographic Touchstone

Romain Girtgen—CNA
Romain Girtgen—CNA
An installation view of The Family of Man at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg following the renovation and restoration project, June 2013.

In 1955, a decade into the Cold War, the Museum of Modern Art in New York opened its doors to a monumental photography exhibition, an aesthetic manifesto visualizing ideas of peace and “the essential oneness of mankind.” Edward Steichen, then director of the MoMA photography department, curated 503 photographs — from a pool of two million — by 273 artists from 68 countries with the at-once simple and grand goal of definitively “explaining man to man.”

Steichen called The Family of Man the most significant work of his career, writing later in the exhibition catalog — which has since sold millions of copies — that it was the “most ambitions and challenging project photography has ever attempted.” An immersive installation of monochrome prints glued onto wood frames upwards of 13 feet in length and often suspended from the ceiling, the exhibition was grouped by themes thought common across all cultures: birth, love, labor, joy, and others. The roster of photographers contained many names that remain in obscurity, but many more that have gone on to achieve legendary status: from Elliott Erwitt and W. Eugene Smith to Alfred Eisenstaedt and Nina Leen.

Romain Girtgen—CNA

Romain Girtgen—CNA

An installation view of The Family of Man at Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg, June 2013.

The exhibition has since become one of the most celebrated in photography history, touring more than 150 museums worldwide and quietly thrilling more than 10 million visitors. Now, after a three-year process of cleaning and retouching, the exhibition’s well-worn prints — scratched, many with broken corners, some peeling from their frames — have been masterfully restored to their original condition. This month, the entire exhibition opened to the public anew at its permanent home at Clervaux Castle, a 900-year-old national monument in Luxembourg, Steichen’s birthplace.

The markings of the project’s long and well-traveled life have been covered up, while the new exhibition space has been renovated to replicate the visitor experience of the original MoMA show. The collection itself, meanwhile, feels like a relic — significant, and memorable, but a relic nonetheless — of the past. The all-encompassing inclusiveness of its original intent, after all, grows less authoritative with each passing day, as more and more cameras come into the hands of more and more underrepresented members of the increasingly diverse human family.


Eugene Reznik is a Brooklyn-based photographer and writer. Follow him on Twitter @eugene_reznik.


Related Topics: , , ,

Latest Posts

New York, New York. United States.October 17th 2014.#Dysturb New York.

Guerrillas in the Streets: The Dysturb Photo Collective Comes to NYC

Dysturb, a collective of photographers, takes to New York City's streets to bring photojournalism directly to the crowd

Read More
CARNIVORE’S DILEMMA PERMITTED USE: This image may be downloaded or is otherwise provided at no charge for one-time use for coverage or promotion of National Geographic magazine dated November 2014 and exclusively in conjunction thereof. No copying, distribution or archiving permitted. Sublicensing, sale or resale is prohibited. REQUIRED CREDIT AND CAPTION: All image uses must bear the copyright notice and be properly credited to the relevant photographer, as shown in this metadata, and must be accompanied by a caption, which makes reference to NGM. Any uses in which the image appears without proper copyright notice, photographer credit and a caption referencing NGM are subject to paid licensing. Mandatory usage requirements:1. Include mandatory photo credit with each image © Brian Finke/National Geographic2. Show the November cover of National Geographic somewhere in the post (credit: National Geographic) unless using only one image - you do not have to show the cover3. Provide a prominent link to: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/meat/4. Mention that the images are from "the November issue of National Geographic magazine”Beef is big in Texas. Last year in the state, ten times as many calves were born, 3.85 million, as human babies.At the Big Texan in Amarillo—which offers free rides in a longhorn limo—you get your 72-ounce steak for free ifyou finish it in under an hour, along with the shrimp cocktail, the baked potato, the salad, and the roll.

Photojournalism Daily: Oct. 20, 2014

Courtesy Ginger Miller

#TIMEvets: Share Your Stories and Photos of Inspiring Veterans

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 17,507 other followers