The Nuclear Family of Man
John O’Brian is Professor of Art History and Brenda & David McLean Chair at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. His books include: Beyond Wilderness; Ruthless Hedonism, and Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticism. His current research is on the engagement of photography with the atomic era.
The surprise film success in the
Front cover, exhibition catalogue of The Family of Man, 1955
The intersecting politics of March of the Penguins and Fahrenheit 9/11 serve as a preface, in the form of a truncated morality tale, to the concerns of this essay. I want to revisit an exhibition of photographs, The Family of Man, under the themes of humanism – a matter of fierce critique by Roland Barthes in the mid-1950s – and nuclear violence. The overriding proposition of the exhibition, which opened at the
Wall text with a quotation from Bertrand Russell, The Family of Man, 1955
As the curator of the exhibition, J. Edward Steichen stated that he wished to offer a strong statement of revulsion on nuclear war and violence. During World War II, he had been in charge of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific.
Edward Steichen aboard the USS Lexington, 1943 (Photo by Victor Jorgensen)
He had also organized two patriotic exhibitions, Road to Victory (1942) and Power in the Pacific (1945), for the
In 1952, Steichen visited
Yamahata Shogyoku, father of Yamahata Yosuke, with Edward Steichen in Tokyo, 1952
The strikingly unequal heights of the two men seem to point to the unequal power relations between the
Front cover of
The answers are more complicated than they might initially seem. I will begin with some facts, which commentators on the show have often got wrong. (This is not because documentation on the exhibition is missing, but because it is so extensive and inconsistent.)The Family of Man opened at the
Visitors to The Family of Man looking at a black and white image of an atomic explosion,
Under the auspices of the United States Information Agency the exhibition traveled the world, beginning its European tour in West Berlin and a second tour in
Yamahata Yosuke, untitled photograph taken in Nagasaki, 10 August 1945
The Family of Man was a benign cultural demonstration of American political values. From the point of view of cultural diplomacy it was a spectacular success, even traveling to
Richard Nixon and Nikita Krushchev, who is holding a souvenir plastic bowl, American National Exhibition, 1959
As part of the bureaucracy charged with advancing American foreign policy, the role of the United States Information Agency was to help to undermine Communism, promote capitalism and spread democracy – and to do so quietly. “[W]here USIA output resembles the lurid style of communist propaganda,” a directive warned, “it must be unattributed.” The
In one of the last rooms in the
Detonation of test Mike, Operation Ivy, Enewetak Atoll, 31 October 1952
Visitors to The Family of Man standing in front of a color transparency of test
Minimal information was provided on the image in the exhibition or the catalogue, just its source and title, in keeping with the labels attached to the other photographs displayed in The Family of
Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon 5), the Japanese tuna fishing boat exposed to nuclear fallout from an American thermonuclear test
Instead, Life informed readers that, “As the [fireball] rises over the shock cloud, expanding gases from the fireball cool and freeze water vapor in the air, covering the mushroom with an icy shroud.” The description is elegant, even chilling – the concluding phrase, “covering the mushroom with an icy shroud,” is almost elegiac, an eschatological figuration of last rites – but it makes no direct reference to war, least of all to the human consequences of nuclear weapons. Fifteen years later Hannah Arendt published her book On Violence, in part because she perceived there had been a dissipation of the revulsion for violence that had followed World War II, as well as a dissipation of the non-violent philosophies that had arisen around the early Civil Rights movement. In 1954, Life reflected little of the revulsion ascribed to the period by Arendt.
A publicity notice released by the
Eugene Smith, photograph included in The Family of Man exhibition, 1955
Carl Mydans, photograph included in The Family of Man exhibition, 1955
The aim of the 503 photographs selected for display by Steichen, who was head of photography at the museum, was to provide a positive message. “It is essential to keep in mind,” Steichen wrote, “the universal elements and aspects of human relations and experiences common to all mankind rather than situations that represented conditions exclusively related or peculiar to a race, an event, a time or place” (emphasis added). One assumes that the list of excluded uncommon conditions extended to class relations. According to Wayne Miller, Steichen’s close associate in the navy’s photography unit during the war and principal assistant in organizing the show, six million photographs were reviewed for possible inclusion, some of which were solicited and others of which were drawn from published sources. The search was for photographs that conveyed collective emotions, representing humanity in the abstract; photographs of “situations,” to use Steichen’s word for historically contingent images, lacked the desired quality of transcendence and were rejected. As a photographer working in the Pacific at the conclusion of the war, Miller had visited
Wayne Miller, Cover of Life Magazine, 14 February 1955
By contrast, consider the photographs presented more than half a century later by Marine Photographer Joe O’Donnell who surveyed
Front cover of
The Family of Man exhibition was greeted with wide critical approbation, both for the story it told as well as for how it told it. Although a few American commentators offered dissenting views – the photographer Walker Evans, for instance, whose work was not included in the show, wrote disdainfully of its “human familyhood [and] bogus heartfeeling” – the vast majority agreed with Carl Sandburg, brother-in-law of Steichen and author of the prologue to the catalogue, that here was “A camera testament, a drama of the grand canyon of humanity, an epic.”
It was these same qualities in the exhibition that drew the attention of Roland Barthes, The Family of Man’s most frequently cited early commentator. After seeing the exhibition in
Six months after the opening of The Family of Man, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was lynched in
Emmett Till in his Coffin, Chicago, 1 September 1955
Barthes was more right than he knew about this, for a photograph of an earlier lynching had initially been included in the exhibition only to be removed after the
Death Slump at
In preparing the exhibition, there seems to have been a compelling rationale for Steichen to incorporate the photograph of the lynching. Along with the artist and photographer Ben Shahn, one of whose Farm Security Administration images was included, Steichen had been a member of a UNESCO committee established “to study the problem of how the Visual Arts can contribute to the dissemination of information on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” One of the recommendations of the committee was to mount an exhibition on civil rights, and it is likely that Steichen wished to reflect in his own exhibition something of the visual reach of that socially conscious aim. The plan backfired, at least from Steichen’s point of view. By including and then withdrawing the controversial image, he became responsible for raising a socially contentious issue only to suppress it. “There are dead men, but no murderers” in the exhibition, the critic Phoebe Lou Adams caustically observed, and with the removal of the 1937 lynching photograph there was also one corpse less. Wayne Miller downplayed the excision. Steichen, he said, “felt that this violent picture might become a focal point [in the reception of The Family of Man] . . . [It] provided a form of dissonance to the theme, so we removed it for that purpose.” In other words, the photograph was extirpated so that the overriding harmonies of the exhibition, constructed to appear seamless, would not fall apart.
But the harmonies of the exhibition may still have fallen apart, if not for a majority of viewers then for some. Notwithstanding the removal of the lynching image, its presence (or, rather, its absence) must have stayed in the memory of some of those who had seen it. But exactly how this photograph of atrocity would have remained in the minds of those who had seen the exhibition, or of those who had read press accounts of its removal, is not straightforward. It cannot be assumed, for example, that all spectators saw it as a provocation for social change and justice. Susan Sontag observes in her book Regarding the Pain of Others that viewers of photographs of suffering – she is speaking generally here and not specifically about the victims of lynching or of nuclear holocaust, as seen in Domon Ken’s extraordinary photograph in which laughter trumps suffering – are no more likely to occupy the same subject positions than are viewers of any other kind of image.
Domon Ken, Mr. and Mrs. Kotani, from the Hiroshima series, 1957
Some may have experienced the violence depicted, others may be opposed to the violence but have not experienced it, and yet others may themselves have been responsible for inflicting the type of pain represented in the image. Audience responses to representations of suffering are not uniform, and the same images can be read variously as memorializations of loss, as denunciations of perpetrators, as exhortations to inflict more pain, as calls for peace, as cries for revenge.
The photograph of the lynching in The Family of Man is no exception. Spectators are differentiated by time, place and social background in responding to an image of a black man who was chained to a tree and killed. Whether they might also agree that those responsible for the lynching should be brought to justice, or that such events should never occur, or that human life is nasty-short-and-brutish, or that the photograph should be banned and its reproduction prohibited, inevitably depends on the sensibilities and background of the viewers as well as on their responses to the dominant narrative of the exhibition. A photograph, and specifically the excised lynching photograph, is capable of supporting any of the short declarations just offered.
The photograph of the lynching did not appear in the exhibition catalogue. Nor did the color image of the nuclear explosion. Even the black-and-white photograph of an atomic blast that was substituted for the original color photograph in traveling versions of the show that followed the New York venue (with the exception of those versions sent to Japan, as mentioned earlier), which was first published in Life magazine, was excluded from the catalogue. The reasons for the substitution and for the shift from color to black-and-white are unclear to me. Steichen seems not to have discussed them publicly, and private correspondence and documents in various archives provide no leads. He did, however, talk about his conception of the exhibition’s anti-nuclear message. In a film on the exhibition produced by the United States Information Agency for international circulation in 1955, Steichen emphasized that he wished viewers to read the photograph of the atomic blast and nine nearby photographs of distressed human faces in tandem.
Joan Miller, one of the group of nine faces exhibited in The Family of Man, 1955
In the center of the group of nine faces was a photograph taken by Yamahata on August 10, 1945, representing an injured child holding a rice ball and identified in the catalogue simply as Nagasaki Japan. Steichen had probably first seen the photograph, along with others by Yamahata, during his 1952 visit to
There is no direct way of ascertaining how visitors to the exhibition responded to Steichen’s intended anti-nuclear message, or whether they empathized with the distressed faces in terms of the threat, any more than there is a way of determining how visitors responded to the lynching photograph or to knowledge of its removal. But there are persuasive historical reasons to think that the concussive impact Steichen wished to impart was not realized. How could a piece of minor theater, argued one of the dissenters at the time, a bomb room containing an explosion that “looks like any other splash of orange fire,” do the job? In the single photograph of a thermonuclear explosion, it seems, Steichen hoped to represent the insanity of technological hubris and to decry the U.S.-Soviet arms race that was producing ever-deadlier nuclear armaments. He was looking for the trick card that was so high and wild he would not have to deal another, to paraphrase some lines from Leonard Cohen’s The Stranger.
In my judgment, Steichen did not find the card: the overwhelmingly affirmative thrust of the exhibition smothered whatever potential may have existed for the representation of nuclear tragedy. His decision to represent the destructive power of the bomb in the form of a mushroom cloud and a single photograph by Yamahata, while rejecting other images of the destruction of human life and cities that occurred beneath the mushroom cloud, such as those of Hiroshima by Matsushige Yoshito, corresponded to the propaganda policies of the United States following August 6, 1945. The effects of radiation were consistently denied by official
 Rich Lowry quoted by David Smith, “Film about the family life of penguins inspires
 Bertrand Russell, quoted in The Family of Man (New York: Museum of Modern Art and Maco Magazine Corporation, 1955), 179.
 For a publication on Yamahata’s
 Jacob Dischin, “Family’s Last Day: 270,000 Have Visited Steichen Exhibition,” New York Times, 8 May 1955.
 Edward J. Steichen Archives: Family of Man,
 Quoted from the archival records of the United States Information Agency by Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 194.
 Official Training Book for Guides at the American National Exposition in
 Tomatsu Shomei quoted by Sandra S. Phillips, “Currents in Photography in Postwar Japan,” in Shomei Tomatsu: Skin of the Nation, edited by Leo Rubenfien, Sandra S. Phillips, and John W. Dower (San Francisco Museum of Art, 2004), 51.
 The incident sparked a national campaign in Japan to ban nuclear weapons. Twenty million signatures were collected in support of the national and international anti-nuclear movement. See Nakagawa Masami, Honda Masakazu, Hirako Yoshinori and Sadamatsu Shinjiro, “Bikini: 50 Years of Nuclear Exposure,” Asahi Shimbun, January 26, 27, 28, 2004, translated for Japan Focus by Kyoko Selden.
 Publicity notice, “Museum of Modern Art Plans International Photography Exhibition,” 31 January 1955, Steichen Archives, Museum of Modern Art.
 Walker Evans, “Robert Frank,” US Camera 1958 (New York: US Camera Publishing Corporation, 1957), 90.
 Roland Barthes, “The Great Family of Man,” Mythologies, translated by Annette Lavers (St Albans, Hertfordshire: Picador, 1976), 100-102.
 The source of the photograph was not identified in The Family of Man exhibition or catalogue.
 Phoebe Lou Adams, “Through a Lens Darkly,” Atlantic 195, April 1955, 69.
 Wayne Miller interviewed by Sandeen, cited in Picturing an Exhibition, 50.
 Steichen speaking in The Family of Man, a 26 minute-film produced by the United States Information Agency in 1955. The agency made more than 300 prints of the film, and circulated them in both 16 mm and 35 mm.
 Adams, “Through a Lens Darkly,” 72.
 Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York: G.P. Putnam’s, 1995), 41.
comments powered by Disqus
- 2 conservative groups are leading the fight against the new AP standards
- The secret of successful history departments
- AHA president suggests older historians should consider making way for younger historians
- Niall Ferguson Joins Schwarzman Scholars as Distinguished Visiting Professor in China
- Francis Fukuyama is still bullish on where history is headed, but Americans should worry: republics can decay.