FAMILY OF MAN EXHIBITION

In 1955, the Museum of Modern Art in New York premiered what has become a legendary photographic exhibition. Known as The Family of Man, it was curated by Edward Steichen, an American photographer of Luxembourg descent, whose intention was to depict the universality of human experience, "the essential oneness of mankind", through the language of photography.

Family of Man Book Cover

In preparing for the show, Steichen conducted an extensive search for images and issued a general invitation to photographers around the world to submit works for consideration. He received over 2 million photographs and initially reduced that number to 10,000. His final selection consisted of 508 images by 273 photographers from 68 countries.

Two of Steichen's selections were images by Wynn Bullock: Child in Forest, 1951 and Let There Be Light, 1954 (a title that came from the Biblical quote Steichen attached to the image in the exhibition). In a letter to Bullock dated May 7, 1954, Steichen wrote the following:

"I have lived with some of your works long enough now to believe in my enthusiasm when I first met them. I think your photograph of the nude child in the forest is one I am hoping to feature prominently and very large in the Family of Man Show. I also consider it one of the small group of great photographs."

As it turned out, both of Bullock's images were featured prominently and largely in the show. Let There Be Light was displayed very early in the sequence of images in 4 contiguous panels having an overall measurement of 12 ½ by 10 feet! It was followed by a 5 by 4-foot print of Child in Forest. As Steichen used them, the two images set the stage for the rest of the exhibition.

In addition to the exhibit, a book was published by the same name. Let There Be Light was featured as the frontispiece image and Child in Forest became part of the introduction that was written by Steichen's brother-in-law, renowned author and poet Carl Sandburg. Continuously in print since 1955, the Family of Man book has served as a testament to the power and eloquence of photography for millions of people. Let there be light

After its premiere showing in New York, The Family of Man traveled to 38 countries during the late 1950s and early 1960s and was viewed by more than 9 million visitors. At the end of this unprecedented tour, the only surviving edition of the exhibit was presented by the American government to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, honoring Steichen's wish that "the most important work of his life" be permanently housed in the country of his birth. Mysteriously, the only element that was missing from the gifted exhibit was one of the panels of Let There Be Light.

In 1994, following decades of research, conservation work and construction, Luxembourg opened a modern museum in the Château de Clervaux dedicated to The Family of Man. At the time, it was decided to reproduce a single new print of Let There Be Light that replicated the very large dimensions of the 4-paneled print in the original show. The Bullock estate gave its permission for this to be done. In 2003, the entire exhibition was added to UNESCO's Memory of the World Register in recognition of its historical value.

Taking very seriously its responsibility for the on-going preservation and exhibition of its internationally beloved and historically valuable collection, the Museum in Clervaux temporarily closed its doors in 2010 so its facilities could be renovated and the print collection further restored.

As part of this process, staff members are re-considering how they want to display Let There Be Light. Their current thinking is to restore and show the three original panels they have and reproduce the missing one. They are also looking at new ways to present the show with stories that will add meaning for visitors as they journey through the collection. In the months ahead, the Bullock estate will be working with the Museum's curator Anke Reitz regarding both Bullock images.

The re-opening of the exhibition is now planned for the middle of 2013. It will be another milestone in the saga of this remarkable cultural treasure.

~ Essay by Barbara Bullock-Wilson Copyright © 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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