The Family of Man opened to the public on January 24, 1955. It included 503 works by 273 photographers hailing from 68 countries. The United States Information Agency circulated five copies of the exhibition, which were presented at 88 venues in 37 countries around the world over the next decade. In 1994, a version of the exhibition was permanently installed at the Clervaux Castle in Luxembourg, where visitors today can experience the exhibition as it was seen by more than seven million people over the last 60 years. As significant as that audience might be, it pales in comparison with the number of people who have held in their hands one of the 300,000 copies that have been sold of the accompanying catalogue, also first published in 1955. I’d argue that it is difficult to find someone interested in photography who hasn’t spent time with a copy. I remember receiving mine (a paperback copy) in middle school when I took my first photography class.
In general, the best one can hope to do when publishing art books is to break even, but the amazing success of The Family of Man provided The Museum of Modern Art with an unusual opportunity to establish an acquisitions fund with the proceeds from the sales of that book. And now, 60 years later, as the Museum publishes a 60th anniversary edition (a facsimile of the original), it seems fitting to reflect upon the hundreds and hundreds of photographs that have been purchased with the essential support from that fund. Several recent exhibitions I have organized would not have been possible without key images acquired through The Family of Man Fund—Picturing New York: Photographs from The Museum of Modern Art (works by Vivian Cherry, Paula Horn Kotis, Ted Croner, Charles Martin, Jeffrey Scales), Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection, 1909–1949 (works by John Gutmann, Helmar Lerski, Lee Miller, László Moholy-Nagy), and Nicholas Nixon: Forty Years of The Brown Sisters (images from 1989, 1995, 1996, 2002, and 2010). The Family of Man Fund has also made possible an attentiveness to contemporary activity, with dozens upon dozens of photographs acquired within a year of their creation (works by Merry Alpern, Anthony Barboza, Zeke Berman, Deborah Fleming Caffery, Jo Ann Callis, John Coplans, Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Andreas Gursky, Rosalind Fox Solomon, Michael Spano, Joel Sternfeld, Carol Block Taback, and Carrie Mae Weems, to name a few).
Here are a few of my favorite photographs that came into the Museum Collection thanks to The Family of Man Fund, in chronological order:
Bill Brandt. Bloomsbury Party. c. 1937
In 2013 I organized an exhibition of Bill Brandt’s work, Bill Brandt: Shadow and Light, in which we featured more than 40 recent acquisitions of Brandt’s vintage prints. Steichen and Brandt’s correspondence in the 1950s had been key to my research, their mutual respect serving as a counterbalance to Steichen’s opinion that Brandt should have continued to print in the soft gray tones of pre-World War II prints such as this one.
Inge Morath. Mrs. Eveleigh Nash with her Chauffeur at Buckingham Palace Mall. 1953
It’s not that common for the Museum to purchase works at auction, but occasionally we identify a photograph that looks particularly promising and are able to secure the approval of our Committee on Photography to bid (up to a preset limit, of course). I’ll always remember this one because a very nervous first-time bidder calling London from New York purchased it—yours truly, on behalf of the Museum!.
John Szarkowski. Wainwright Building, St. Louis. 1954
Before he succeeded Steichen as the Director of the Department of Photography at MoMA in 1961 (and in fact, again after he retired in 1991), John Szarkowski was an accomplished photographer. This image appears on the cover of the first book of his photographs, The Idea of Louis Sullivan (1956), a print the Museum acquired in 1994.
Seydou Keita. Untitled (Bamako). 1956–57
In the spirit of attentiveness to photographs made around the world that characterized the exhibition, The Family of Man Fund has helped make possible the acquisition of works from Africa, Asia, and Latin America by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Ernest Cole, Masahisa Fukase, Hector Garcia, Hai Bo, Kati Horna, J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Gabriel Orozco, Mariana Yampolsky, Zhang Pelli, and many more. I love the fact that this one was made just after the exhibition at MoMA had closed.
Cindy Sherman. Untitled #263. 1992
And I’ll conclude with one of the tougher acquisitions that also happens to be MoMA Director Glenn Lowry’s favorite. At the time of her retrospective here he observed that the work “most seared into my memory [is] actually one of the works that I find the most repellent and disgusting… It cuts to the essential Cindy, which is a slipperiness of identity; it’s just one little chromatic gene that differentiates male and female, and here they’re played out at their most exaggerated extreme.”