The Family of Man, the companion volume to Edward Steichen’s seminal 1955 exhibition of the same name at MoMA, was the first book of photography to have a lasting impact on me. Before I ever picked up a camera, I remember the distinct pull of the images, absorbing and moving me with the very elements that still affect me today, i.e. emotion, gesture, compassion, drama, light, contrast, composition, line and form. Images from pioneers of documentary photography with names like De Carava and Haas, Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson, Erwitt and Frank to mention only a few, filled the pages and stuck in my young head. All those moments of tenderness and anger, of lust and contemplation must have impacted and taught me and seared a kind of tattoo on my senses. I look through now and still feel the jolt of recognition that can only happen when we see ourselves in the actions of others.
Other names like Penn and Arnold, Eisenstaedt, Brandt and Smith, culled from the pages of Life and Look magazines, were already well-established and went on to long, remarkable careers; but, as is most common, only the book lives on. The exhibit was designed by the great minimalist architect Paul Rudolph and photographed for the book by Ezra Stoller, maybe the greatest architectural photographer of the 20th century. And from the lyrical, poetic prologue by Carl Sandburg, “Here or there you may witness a startling harmony where you say, “This will be haunting me a long time with a loveliness I hope to understand better”.”
Toward the end of the book are seven photographs on two pages with the simple words ‘We two form a multitude.’ beneath each. Those few words always seemed applicable to the hopeless romantic in me, speaking directly to the sense I have of certain couples blending and merging with each other as the years pass. In 1977, on a weekend visit, I photographed my parents near their home in North Carolina; this lovely, happy moment was the precursor to a follow-up series of studio portraits of couples I started in the mid-80’s. That universal encomium resonates with me still.