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The Family of Man is the most widely seen exhibition in the history of photography. The book of the exhibition, still in print, is also the most commercially successful photobook ever published. First shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955, the exhibition traveled throughout the United States and to 46 countries, and was seen by more than nine million people. Edward Steichen conceived, curated, and designed the exhibition. He explained its subject as "the everydayness of life" and "the essential oneness of mankind throughout the world." The exhibition was a statement against war and the conflicts and divisions that threatened a common future for humanity after 1945. The popular international response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Many critics, however, have dismissed the exhibition as a form of sentimental humanism unable to address the challenges of history, politics, and cultural difference.
The Family of Man: Photography in a Global Age revises the critical debate about The Family of Man, challenging in particular the legacy of Roland Barthes's influential account of the exhibition. The expert contributors explore new contexts for understanding Steichen's work and they undertake radically new analyses of the formal dynamics of the exhibition.
Also presented are documents about the exhibition never before available in English. Commentaries by critical theorist Max Horkheimer and novelist Wolfgang Koeppen, a letter from photographer August Sander, and a poetic sequence on the images by Polish poet Witold Wirpsza enable and encourage new critical reflections. A detailed survey of audience responses in Munich from 1955 allows a rare glimpse of what visitors thought about the exhibition.
Today, when armed conflict, environmental catastrophe, and economic inequality continue to threaten our future, it is timely to revisit The Family of Man.