The Family of Man
Sherry Shahan on finding life in the stillness.
Time stretches while I re-organize 32 archival binders, holding an aggregate of 10,000 slide negatives. Images date back to 1982, a horseback safari into Kenya’s Maasailand that produced my first published photos.
I set my loupe aside, turning to miserly bookshelves in a former linen closet. Wedged beside my collection of Audubon Society Field Guides is a first edition of The Family of Man (1955), a collection of black-and-white photographs created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The 192-page book is a permanent depiction of the exhibition.
Five-hundred-and-three photos were taken by 273 men and women—amateurs and professionals, renowned and unknown—images that astonish with grace and inventiveness. People close and far, born into hard labor with grit and dreams, in the company of heroes and essential workers, farmers and bridge builders, musicians and dancers, weavers and window washers, landlords and homeless, the loved and the lost.
The failing spine is mended with tape from decades prior. I’m careful wading through the brittle pages where there’s so much life in stillness. Unlike washes of colors, the grays, blacks, and whites allow souls to shine through. The faces teach me to understand without words.
I see what cameras in 68 countries saw. “I belong here.”
I stay with The Family of Man long past midnight, while a haughty wind hurls dead leaves at my window. The next morning my toes curl inside sheepskin slippers. There’s no reason to check the time. I settle into a comfortable calm in my office, bent over a sheet of 35 mm transparencies.
There was more than enough room for thoughts and impressions of life before shelter-in-place. For now I have no desire to venture out.
Sherry Shahan is a writer, photographer, tireless dancer, and holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Edward Steichen (1879-1973) was a Luxembourgish American photographer, painter, and curator. His exhibit The Family of Man was seen by more than 9 million people. He was the director for New York City’s Museum of Modern Arts Photography department until his death in 1973.