The Family of Man

Coffee table books say a lot about a home and the people who live there. They say “We love art“ or “We love to travel” or “We love Marilyn Monroe.” In my case, my books tell my guests, “I love Paris,” “The Beatles are immortal” and “God is a big purple.” (Because I ‘found God’ at the National Air and Space museum watching a movie about the Hubble Telescope. So I bought a book with His picture in it and Steve’s response was “God is a big purple?”)  Coffee table books are never meant to be read—(how depressing of a job would that be?  You pour your whole soul into writing a book that people only look at the pictures-kind of like writing for Playboy magazine I guess). The images however can remain with us forever (speaking of coffee table books, folks). This is the case with the coffee table book I grew up as a child, “The Family of Man.”  Finding it again as an adult, brought back the same feelings of awe that I felt as a young girl.

“The Family of Man” was a photographic exhibit created in 1955 by Edward Steichen and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. This exhibit featured 508 photographs, by 273 photographers, of people in 68 countries. The theme is “people!”  The poet, Carl Sandburg, explains in the prologue:

People! Flung wide and far, born into toil, struggle, blood and dreams, among lovers, eaters, drinkers, workers, loafers, fighters, players, gambler. Here are ironworkers, bridgemen, musicians, sandhogs, miners, builders of huts and skyscrapers, jungle hunters, landlords and the landless, the loved and the unloved, the lonely and the abandoned, the brutal and the compassionate-one big family hugging close to the ball of Earth for its life and being.


In a different place and time, Carl Sandburg was asked what he thought the ugliest word in the English language was? After thinking for a few minutes, he answered,  “The ugliest word, the ugliest word is ‘exclusive’.” Mr. Sandburg was the brother-in-law of Edward Steichen. The photographs showing the universality of the human experience must have also left a deep impression on him.   I have thought how I might answer a similar question, “What is the most beautiful word in the English language?” Many words come to my mind, Love, Patience, Peace, Tolerance, Hope. Even the word “inclusive” has been a powerful word as I have raised my son, Andy, in a much kinder world than existed during Mr. Sandburg’s lifetime.  However, the word I would choose as my personal most beautiful word is “human.” It is a word that describes each and every one of us, it includes our triumphs and frailties, our strengths and shortcomings and the experience that each and every one of us shares on this big, blue marble. It allows us to soar and to fall, to love and to anger, to pray and to curse, to laugh and to cry. As I have sought for an identity to guide the second half of my life, I have found no better word to describe where I hope to fit in. I am human, a member of the family of man. Fortunately, as a very young girl, my mom left this gentle reminder of this sitting on our coffee table.


**By the way mom, Amazon has the original “Family of Man” book going for 400 dollars-what happened to that book?

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5 Responses to The Family of Man

  1. Cheryl says:

    I don’t remember this book. I do remember the hard candy that used to sit on the glass coffee table that was made out of a crane window. And I remember how grossed out we were when we discovered that the candies were always stuck together because the dog was licking them.

    I don’t have a coffee table, but I do have a couple of great coffee table books that say a lot about me — The Complete Far Side Collection, and The Math Book (great pictures in a book you gave me!)

    I love humans too. I’m clearly one of them with all my good, bad and other. And I’m still trying to meet all the humans in this great big world. So far, it’s been a pretty fun ride.

    • ColleenDown says:

      I almost wrote, “a coffee table book tells a lot about a person, just like my sister who has a Math coffee table book!” –Oh dear, I think the sticky candy problem was after I left home-I hope so anyway!

  2. Ruthanne says:

    What a thought provoking blog. I’ve been thinking all day what my word would be. I love your word-human. Great thoughts. I think today my word would be simple. The world makes life too complicated. We should just make life simple–love and get along with everyone. Thanks for getting me thinking today.

    • ColleenDown says:

      Simple–oh how I wish it was that simple:-) I often wonder how to “uncomplicate” life but you are so right, love is the answer–just like the Beatles said way back in 1964! Keep Blogging Ruth–we are the last holdouts in this Pintrest world!

  3. sullivanh says:

    Beautifully written. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how many ways there are to divide us all. It seems like once all the lines are drawn the world can be a rather lonely place. I like your word choice. I like what it encompasses, not just ideals, but weaknesses as well which probably bring us together more than anything.

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