Friday, September 14, 2012

The Family of Man

This book.  The Family of Man.  One of many in my parents' library, this collection of photographs changed me as a kid.  I was drawn to its pages by its frank depiction of naked boobs, as so many children are to great photography and bare-chested cultures beyond their horizon, but I stayed for something far more lasting.  This book exhilarated me, tickled, puzzled and sickened me, made me uncomfortable, challenged me, made me...feel. And I felt those images everywhere - in my head, heart, crotch, and solar plexus, rippling across my skin as gooseflesh. They enlightened me to so much about the vastness of the world and the experiences of it that were well beyond those which I had access to, and yet also made those foreign people and places seem infinitely knowable. Reachable. This book took places far outside my realm and folded them into my consciousness, made them a part of me.

The book, as described in the prologue is of "People, 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, miners, builders of huts and sky-scrapers, jungle hunters, landlords and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate - one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being."

I had never before seen the gaunt face of a person starving. Never seen a grown man weep. Never seen a black woman's breasts, or the glistening umbilicus of a newborn.  I wasn't yet aware that babies could die, that children worked in mines, or even that mothers could feel lonesome.

I was besotted by images of passionate love. The embraces of young lovers, their open mouths breathing in the otherness of souls or their eyes clenched in heated union, both made me squirm with undiagnosed desire.

I recognized the streets of my city from another eras, the order, the chaos of city life unchanged by time.

I pondered the adult world, the sweaty revelry of dance halls, the pain of labor - their grown-up promises of freedom and toil.

I put myself in every picture over and over again.  I imagined myself in every sphere of the globe, in every setting, eating at stifling public tables or playing in fields with round-faced children in tattered clothes. The simple unknown, like what it was to have a brother, to the confounding unknowable of the battlefield, became conceivable notions to me.

 There were impossible images that made my mind strain toward insight. Images that took me by the hand with things familiar; family, laughter, love, and held me in places exotic and alluring, where stories were told close, raucous and nude.

The Family of Man did exactly what it was intended to, it drew me into a sense of being, made me aware of my smallness in part of something larger. It made me aware of our oneness in its infinite variety and also of the revelation of art, the nature of its passport, stamped again and again along the journey to beauty and knowledge.

When I saw this book the other day, at our local library, perched enticingly on an end cap, a little sound came out of me that was somewhat less than librarian. I shoved it hungrily in my check-out stack. I've sat with it, like I did when I was eight, for days now. Nothing has changed for me. I am still gobsmacked by the story it tells.

My kids have both looked at it. Louis is mildly grossed-out, Lily intrigued. Both of them manifesting feelings I had about its content way back when. Nothing has changed, either in the Family of Man, or our place in it.


  1. Holy fuckoly, Schickel, I still have our family's copy, and have written about it in my memoir! It utterly shaped me into a person who assumes commonality between all people. It helped make me into the writer, thinker and lover I am today. So glad and unsurprised that it was the same for you. I think we must be related.

  2. you are a beautiful writer, my friend. just beautiful.

  3. Agape - a-gape- mouth wide open - I didn't know that, I know it now. You really caught that. Marvelous.

  4. So nice. I was really moved by a Carl Sandburg doc I saw last week...& clicked right over to ABE books, ordering The Family of Man, which he wrote to his brother-in-law Edward Steichen's photos...a Wobblies-era song book called The American Song Bag, his gigantic poem version of Family of Man called The People, Yes...& his Complete Poems. This is the font from which our "politics" should spring...from a socialistic youth, to an ever growing body of life & work, about & for, us people. Love that you felt all this in your way, through the book & photos & feelings of mankind!!