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In 1955, when Edward Steichen launched The Family of Man in the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), it was described, in a sentence that has become attached to the exhibition, as “the greatest photographic enterprise ever undertaken”. Certainly, the figures behind it are extraordinary. From over two million submissions from photographers both famous and unknown at the time, Steichen reduced the collection to 503 photographs to form the exhibition is it is now. Which means he viewed and then discarded approximately 1 999 500 pictures. Remember that next time somebody wants you to sit through a presentation of their holiday snaps. The exhibition is on permanent display in the castle in Clervaux, a touristy village in the north of the Grand Duchy. Having been born here, it was Steichen’s wish that the exhibition be housed permanently in Luxembourg after touring the world following its initial critical and commercial success in New York.

After 53 years, the exhibition still has a certain clout. The layout was important to Steichen, and it is displayed as it was in MoMA, allowing it to give the maximum impact. Despite the Cold War era of the exhibition, the overall impression is neither fearful nor uncertain. The Family of Man demonstrates not the differences between one race and another but instead focuses on the similarities, with the overall message being that we are all fundamentally the same. In fact, the exhibition celebrates this, and the egalitarian message is rather warming. However, it comes with a warning at the end, which I will not reveal here, but it is a stark reminder of how effective photography can be to convey a message (among 502 other ones), but also amply demonstrates the prevailing fears of the Cold War era. The exhibition itself is divided into different themes in different rooms. These vary from birth to childhood, work, leisure, parenting, struggle and celebration, all chronicling histories of unnamed people from all over the world at one moment in their lives. Steichen particularly emphasised the role of the family group in the exhibition, arguably giving double meaning to the title: it is the family of mankind on a macro level, but also the family unit on a micro level. Either way, it imparts a message instilled in Steichen by his mother from a very early age: that every person deserves to be treated equally regardless of who they are or where they come from. Everyone is a person. No more, no less.

The Family of Man is worth visiting and can at times be powerful and humbling. If you get the audio guide, look/listen out for the “very unusual but genuine family portrait” from Steichen’s assistant, and try not to get too annoyed by the jazzy interludes between commentaries, or the fact that the guide itself isn’t the easiest to follow. After leaving, the world seems like a better place. Isn’t that one of the key aims of great art?

The Family of Man, Chateau de Clervaux, Clervaux.

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