Friday, September 9, 2011

The Family of. . . what??

I recently rediscovered this battered old book in my collection and was looking forward to seeing the photos again for the first time in 25 years. It's billed as "the greatest photographic exhibition of all time - 503 pictures from 68 countries - created by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art (Prologue by Carl Sandburg)".

My copy is dated 1955, a softcover in poor shape, the pages badly browned. The paper is of shockingly bad quality, thin shiny magazine stuff you never see any more, almost designed to fall apart or at least turn sepia within a couple of years.

I remember ooh-ing and ahh-ing over this collection and thinking, how significant! But that's the trouble with this book. Pretentiousness and import hang heavily over it. It's very much a product of left-leaning '50s sentiments, the zeitgeist of the black-and-white Eisenhower era and the liberal resistence that went with it.

In the introduction, Carl Sandburg waxes oh-so-Sandburgian: "Peoople! flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gamblers. Here are ironworkers, bridgemen, musicians, sandhogs. . . " - but you get the idea. Presumably, they don't all live in Chicago.

There is a little photo of a smiling piper that appears every other page or so: "Follow me! I'm the piper!", etc. The pages are grouped in a way that somehow embarrasses me. It starts with a James Joyce quote about sex ("and his heart was going like mad/and yes I said yes I will Yes.") On the facing page is a volcano with lava running down, and a picture of an embracing couple lying on a picnic blanket.

Then it goes on to pregnant women, one prominently holding a cigarette, then BIRTH, a newborn baby being held upside-down by one leg by the doctor. And on and on. It's as if Norman Rockwell had been told to "spice it up".

There are lots of cornball quotes, such as: "Sing, sweetness, to the last palpitation of the evening and the breeze." "With all beings and all things we shall be as relatives." "And the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play" (a Cecil B. DeMille/Ten Commandments sort-of-thang). One can almost hear the schmaltzy Aaron Copland score in the background.

It's hard to put my finger on just why all this is so offputting. Joy: OK, let's show a whole lot of people smiling (mostly men of the soil with bad teeth, with a few society types thrown in to show the vast diversity of "people!") Sorrow: let's get out the war pictures, and the old black man crying in the rocking chair. I guess their intentions were good, but I could find only one picture I really liked this time, a monk kneeling in the middle of an empty street in Colombia.

The book ends with a stunning display of eight couples, most of them "ethnic" (meaning old and weatherbeaten), and under each photo is the caption, "We two form a multitude" (eight times already!). There are some ominous warnings about nuclear war and even a little picture of Einstein standing over a messy desk looking puzzled ("hmmmmm, vere did I put zat zandwich?"). There's also a brief nod to the UN, reminding us how lefty-liberal this whole enterprise is, and probably seen as downright pinko by the House Unamerican Committee. Maybe that's why it's been out of print for so long.