When I was a boy I was fascinated by my parent’s copy of “The Family of Man”. The book, taken from a 1955 photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was like a window into the big world. The beautiful images of people from many countries showed that the human condition was essentially the same everywhere: we all went through the same noble story of birth, love, struggle, religion and death. Much later I learned that the photographer Edward Steichen, who designed the show, wished to inspire exactly such sentiments. In the words of Carl Sandburg, taken from the book’s prologue, the human race was “one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being”.
My enthusiasm was typical. The exhibit was extraordinarily popular around the world, as was the book based on it. Tens of millions of people, from sophisticated New Yorkers to Guatemalan peasants, must have felt that the pictures – the French couple kissing, the circle of rapt South Africans listening to a teller of tales – expressed something fundamental and hopeful about the human condition.
Were we right? Was this an accurate representation of the unity and nobility of the human condition? The dawn of a new year is a good time to look back at this one-time cultural icon. The book’s depiction of work – about 10 percent of the 503 pictures, including a Pakistani construction site with elephants, an Iranian shepherd and Americans wearing suits in a boardroom – provides a good test-case.
My childish enthusiasm certainly needs to be tempered. The truths expressed are not really timeless. In fact, the depictions of working men were already old-fashioned in 1955. The hard manual labour which Steichen considered emblematic of masculine toil was on the decline. Bureaucrats and sedentary machine operators might not be as obviously photogenic as the man pictured standing on a girder suspended in mid-air, but would have been closer to the truth. As for women, in the section on work they are mostly shown engaged in domestic drudgery, such as cleaning and carrying water. Such predominantly feminine toil has not been eliminated, but over the last 60 years women have increasingly come to share workplaces – and the corresponding hopes and frustrations – with men.
The array of pictures is on the wrong side of an epochal shift in labour. The decline of farm and harsh factory toil and the rise of offices and services could be almost as important an historical transition as the industrial revolution. Of course, Steichen cannot be blamed for missing this development, but the limited perspective is a reminder that it is hard to be timeless.