Is the exhibition Family of Man a cause for photographic celebration? In his introduction to the essay ‘In the Hearts of Pioneers’ by Carl Sandberg (Analog Sea Review Number 2 (2019), pp 77-80) Jonathan Simons seems to think so. He writes: ‘…imagine you’re living in 1955…when photography remained a precious and true glimpse into the lives of others around the world. This was a time when you could peer at a photograph and see the world looking back at you grand and strange and beautiful.’ No doubt there is truth in this; and I recall a similar reaction when visiting the 2nd World Exhibition of Photography in 1968.
The praise given here and in Sandberg’s essay needs to be tempered, however. For all its worldwide success over eight years, it was not without its critics, including, among others, Roland Barthes, John Berger, Walker Evans and Susan Sontag, people whose views one can respect, if not agree with. Criticisms of Family of Man included: its ‘bogus heartfeeling’; ‘sentimentalism and oversimplification’; the requirement for photographers to surrender their individuality; being a ‘self-congratulatory means for obscuring the urgency of real problems’; and its creation of a myth, ‘the dramatization of an ideological message’. I don’t repeat these criticisms to attempt to diminish the importance of the Family of Man, rather to suggest that it does not represent some pure, prelapsarian ideal of what photography once was.
It’s important to see the good and bad in Family of Man. By the same token, it’s important to see both sides in the proliferation of photography today. (It’s arguable that this proliferation has its roots in the popularity of photography stimulated by Family of Man, The World Photography Exhibition (1965) and the 2nd World Exhibition of Photography, of course.) In its concern for the distractions and destructive influences of images in our on-line world Analog Sea conflates all forms of imagery. Still photography, in the sense that most of us would understand it, is not the same as movies, computer graphics and video games and so on. Similarly, not all photography is the same – it’s important to be able to separate serious creative photography, in all genres, from advertising, social media postings and the like. Appreciation of the good qualities of Family of Man might be a starting point for realising that photography still has an enormous amount to offer, something to celebrate.
A paragraph by Robert Frank, ‘Too Many Images’, follows Sandberg’s essay (p.81). He says, ‘There are too many images, too many cameras now…maybe photography isn’t an art anymore.’ During the road trips that Frank made in 1955-57 he took 28,000 shots; 83 of those were finally selected by him for publication in The Americans.