If ever a country had a national photographer, it’s Luxembourg. It’s interesting how the art community there tends to refer to ‘the American photographer Edward Steichen’ rather than to claim him daily and loudly as a Luxembourger, but born there he was and they love him.
Steichen (1879-1973) gets lots of wall space in Luxembourg City’s excellent Villa Vauban gallery, until spring 2018, with the show Time Space Continuum presenting 44 of Steichen’s pictures. It’s interesting and rare to see so many Steichens at once – even Luxembourg City’s MNHA* rotates groups of 20-odd at a time ‘for conservation reasons’. While it’s great to see his work in such volume, there is always another, world-famous Steichen reason to be in Luxembourg.
The Steichen-curated The Family of Man resides there – thirty-some miles up the road from the capital in the restored 14th century schloss in the village of Clervaux. I have seen it twice now (just €6 to get in) and I can’t entirely make up my mind whether TFoM is all its reputation wants it to be.
Nobody can deny that it is amazing in its scale: 503 photographs by 273 photographers from 68 countries. There’s Steichen himself, Capas R & C, Cartier-Bresson, Bourke-White, Alvarez-Bravo, Brandt, Nilsson, Nillson, Adams A., Arnold, Arbus D & A…the list goes on and on. Maybe it’s my allegedly modern outlook that does it, so far removed from that of the 1950s when the collection was put together, and I don’t really want to say it out loud, but I have to wonder whether TFoM is just naive – was just naive. I know I’m not alone here, but I still feel a bit heretical because TFoM is on UNESCO’s Memory of the World list.
It’s easy to understand why Steichen felt driven to try to show the world what being human meant in the mid-1950s, ten years after the end of probably the worst human event to hit the planet. This exhibition toured the recovering world for years showing visitors images from birth, childhood, through to adulthood; happiness, sadness, fun, ennui, horror, inhumanity, survival and death. It explores issues like healthcare, religion, justice and war.
Did it lead to a better understanding of what it is to be human? Maybe, just maybe, then – in the 50s. But because it is so firmly founded in the then it is now a curio and also rather preachy. It’s not just me who feels propaganda-ed at by it. But positive propaganda. From his office at MOMA in New York, Steichen offered a fillip for the race.
Those who know how influential TFoM was on modern photography probably wonder if there could be anything to be achieved by doing it all again for the 21st Century – there have been one or two not-too-successful or slightly strange attempts at it. David Bate acknowledges in Photography: the Key Concepts that TFoM is ‘soft’ and ‘popular humanism’ which is devoid of a critical stance. Over the past few decades nothing has escaped the camera, and now we must be in a position to critically, and maybe cynically, depict humanity in a truer post-Second World War condition. There must be the fear that people would not want to see their race reflected for what it really is – they would be too afraid the bad would outweigh the good. There’s the challenge for the poor devil who curated a real new TFoM.
*Musée National d’Histoire et d’Art, Luxembourg City. A seriously amazing museum, let down only by its acronym..