Does Mitchell’s portrayal of Steichen’s life contribute in any way to your understanding of his vision of The Family of Man?
Mitchell’s novel, although fictional, contributes an idea of Steichen’s motive for making the Family of Man, a universal family album and a statement against war. I believe the novel reveals the want in Steichen to have a family album of his own, since many of his photos of his young family were destroyed. In addition to many photo’s being lost, the photos he still had possession of were only relics of his now broken family. Having had a less than ideal middle class family that eventually disintegrated, additionally provides reason for the seemingly “idealization of the bourgeois nuclear family” ever present in The Family of Man(Hirsch 52). As depicted in Mitchell’s novel, Steichen often is searching for a way to understand Clara, his ex-wife, or at least the reason for their strained relationship, mostly her paranoia. His lack of connections between people like his wife could have contributed to his need to find universal connections in the creation of The Family of Man. Mitchell’s novel shares vivid imagery to what Steichen might have experienced in his time serving the wars, including his service and his emotional battles with what he encountered. The motive for Steichen to want to create a book discouraging war is very prevalent in Mitchell’s novel. I would say that half of her novel was to give the reader possible motivations for creating a family album and the other half was used to show Steichen’s political anti-war sentiments he hoped to achieve in The Family of Man. Mitchell does not attempt to claim all of these motivations are the true motivations. In fact, the actual historical facts on Steichen listed in the epilogue are quite factual and devoid of feeling. Most of the understanding Mitchell gives her readers is fictionalized and inferred. Yet, after reading the novel, Steichen became a real person to me though fictionalized. It gave Steichen emotional motivations that seem more fulfilling than only Steichen’s personal statements about The Family of Man. It may not technically give me an insight into Steichen’s exact vision, but it give me possible, relate-able, and accessible possibilities of his vision.
Yes. You have touched on most of the levels of connections between the book and the exhibit.
Emily Mitchell’s “The Last Summer of the World” is a fictional account of Edward Steichen’s life. The novel switches between flashbacks of Steichen’s life before the war and his experiences photographing the war. From the flashbacks we learn that Steichen did not have a happy marriage and eventually separated from his wife and two daughters. This may contribute to why Steichen decided to write “The Family of Man,” as a tribute to the life he did not have. “The Family of Man” shows photographs of many happy couples, children, and people having a good time. Steichen may have complied these photographs because they were not moments that he had to document for himself. Also, since Steichen was photographing the war, he developed a hatred of it. Some of the quotes and photographs depict the tragedy of war, which portrays Steichen’s feelings towards it. Since the photographs show how people all over the world are similar, it adds to the message that we should not be fighting each other, because we are not all that different. By adding the photographs of families, Steichen may also be playing our emotions by showing that war tears apart the happy families as shown in his book. Although Mitchell’s novel was fiction, it seems realistic and certainly adds to a possible understanding of Steichen’s “The Family of Man.”
What about the link between the political and the familial? Do you see that in the novel?
In Emily Mitchell’s “The Last Summer of the World”, we are given a historical backdrop and biographical look into Edward Steichen’s life, even if it is fictional. The book flips back and forth between present war-time interactions and flashbacks of Steichen’s life before the war. These times are very offsetting to one another and give a sort of personal reflection that Steichen has looking back over his life before it collapses between the two different parts: the war and his family. After reading this book, I believe that the photos he took all over the world were taken to show HIS perspective on things and he published them to show everyone a different perspective of the world during these war times. Steichen may have lost hope in his own life in bringing the people he loved most, his wife and two daughters, back together with him. He was a not very good at being a social human being, certainly not as good as he was at photography. Photography was his own special form of communication. Could it be possible that in his collection of photos he filled the void of the family and human connection he was lacking? Also, instead of blaming himself for the problems and bad events in his life he blamed the war. There are many photos in his collection that portray a negative light on war and nuclear weapons. These things are Steichen’s enemies when it comes down to who took away his beloved France, his family, and his life. Although he had a part in the war as an officer, it’s his little message to the world that he does not believe in the violence and destruction. Steichen is a lover, not a fighter. This strengthens his portrayal of the family on a small scale and a large human species scale. His vision in “The Family of a Man” put purpose back into his life, and I can only imagine he’d hoped for his family to read it one day and believe that there was still and everlasting love for them displayed within the photographs.
Keep in mind that Steichen did not take the pictures in the exhibit. He edited the, collected them, etc. Interestingly his work as an artist is not entirely apparent in the exhibit.
“The Last Summer of the World” by Emily Mitchell tells the fictionalized story of Edward Steichen’s life before and during World War I. It centers on the disintegration of his first marriage and the subsequent fall-out of his family. The death of his family could contribute to the development of “The Family of Man” in order to give a cohesive experience of the family unit. Throughout “The Family of Man” there are no depictions of divorce or familial disintegration. This could be Steichen’s way of re-writing the past into a happier and more optimistic future. That is not to say that there is not a negative aspect seen throughout the photographic series. There are themes that challenge the negative aspects of the human experience, such as hunger and loneliness. This is seen through his experiences in the war. He saw many horrific things and as such, he built “The Family of Man” in order to counteract the travesties of war. As Mitchell and Hirsch both established, “The Family of Man” takes the approach of uniting the general public into a common core of values and human experiences. This would hopefully detract the negative feelings toward another group of people that could eventually lead to war. The negative themes throughout “The Family of Man” can also be seen through the trials and tribulations that Steichen had had with his wife and the turmoil that his marriage caused him. Though “The Last Summer of the World” is a fictionalized historical story of Edward Steichen’s life, it still helped me gain context and understanding into the motives of his project, “The Family of Man.”
What about the war photography and the political ramifications of his exhibit?
While Emily Mitchell’s portrayal of Edward Steichen’s life in The Last Summer of the World is fictional, it has a base in fact. With this text in mind, it seems that Steichen may have created The Family of Man with the intention of creating a family portrait for the entire world, as his own attempt at creating a family fell to pieces. The image of the family portrayed in The Family of Man is an ideal, stable picture, consisting of a mother, father and children, all appearing to be happy. As shown in Mitchell’s text, this was the opposite of Steichen’s personal experiences with family, therefore this may reflect his desire for a functional family, as well as his optimism that a world-wide family may exist despite his lack of personal experience with it. The Family of Man also makes a strong statement for international community and cooperation, such as through its praise of the United Nations. This likely stems from Steichen’s experiences with World War I. The start of the war coincided with his family life falling apart, and was clearly a difficult period for him. Having experienced war firsthand, it is more understandable that he would feel motivated to take preemptive action against it by encouraging and spreading a message of peace. Mitchell’s book also illuminated what an integral part of Steichen’s life photography was, which helps to explain why he chose to utilize mainly photographs with select quotations in The Family of Man.
In Mitchell’s vision, is it possible for Steichen to rectify what he has done to his family through the staging of such an exhibit or by any other public means?
In “The Last Summer of the World”, Mitchell takes a fictionalized look into Steichen’s life. It recounts the story of his love of photography, his marriage before the war, and the troubles that estranged him from his family. These troubles are expounded upon during his time as a photographer for the allies in the war. The connection to “Family of Man” can be interpreted as his failing to create his own family, thus turning to the rest of the world to make one. At the end of the novel, he realizes how he should stop trying different effects on his photographs and just take pictures of what he actually saw, like he did during the war. Perhaps these factors led to the creation of “The Family of Man”. On the one hand, he was a man who loved many people, but had trouble keeping his own family together. Creating the book let him express the connectedness between all people that he felt, while at the same time utilizing the simplistic approach to photography.
But does he really move away from art photography after the war, or does his vision of art photography change?
Upon first reading The Family of Man, I thought a man with a very comfortable life and upbringing compiled it. The predominately Western perspective, coupled with the unwarranted optimism towards humanity made me think the editor was out of touch with the real world.
However, Emily Mitchell’s The Last Summer of the World, though fictional, shed insight into the life of Edward Steichen, which changed my background knowledge on his photographic essay. This gave me insight into and changed my perspective towards The Family of Man.
Steichen’s motivation for this narrative was probably a way of coping with the tumult of his personal and professional life. He had seen so much injustice and hatred between fellow men that he wanted to remind people of their unity as humans.
Like the photograph of his daughters on a sunny day, he wanted to capture the happy moments in peoples’ lives. Life moves so quickly and can so easily go awry, as is seen in his marriage to Clara. Mitchell described Steichen as trying to “reach through the glass of the present” to touch the happy times of the past (78).
By doting on the good times, even if they’re a lie, it makes the hard times that much easier. Although looking at pictures of his children made him nostalgic, Steichen preferred it “to the numbness it replaced” (70).
Similarly, all of the pictures in The Family of Man are very evocative. Whether the feeling is joyful, sorrowful, this photographic essay seeks to elicit emotion. In The Last Summer of the World, while talking to the sculptor Rodin, Steichen poses the idea “that photographs…gave an impression, a feeling” (65).
During his time in the army, Steichen learned to take accurate pictures with the intent of killing enemy civilians. These photographs “were not made to be beautiful, but to be clear” (10) and “all the things he’d loved and hated and struggled were confined to the flat print of the ground” (17). After this traumatizing experience, it is easier to understand Steichen’s reasoning for creating The Family of Man. To bring hope to a world struggling with the aftermath of World War II and the anticipation of the Cold War. To join people of all races and countries of origin and remind them of their oneness.
Do you think that The Family Man was supposed to serve as a corrective for all the mistakes he made in his own marriage, as well as the role he played as a photographer in warfare? Did it?
There are many ways in which “The Family of Man” is explained through Emily Mitchell’s “The Last Summer of the World.” This novel is a factional account of the life of Edward Steichen prior to and during his time of service in World War I. Although it is mostly fictional, there are parts of the novel that accurately depict the life of Edward Steichen. For example, due to his immersion in his work, his family fell apart and he eventually divorced from his wife. Also, he did serve in World War I and captured much of the war in photograph. Because of these truths hidden in Mitchell’s novel, it is easy to decipher some explanation from Steichen’s exhibit “The Family of Man.” First of all, it is obvious that Steichen did not have the family dynamic in his own life that he chose to depict in his photo exhibit. Perhaps he used this book to create something of a family that he always wanted but was never quite able to acquire. But at the same time, there is often stark juxtaposition between different photographs in the display that could express Steichen’s feelings of immense separation from his life back home while he was fighting in the war overseas. Also, the general nature of some of the photos to catch attention and disturb the viewer would be explained by Steichen’s involvement in the war. In addition, what Steichen was depicted to have experienced in his time of battle during WWI would account from the sections of “Family of Man” that were obviously a political criticism and call to action, such as the story of America’s involvement in nuclear energy.
Very comprehensive. I also appreciate the beginning of your close reading of the exhibit itself in terms of his psyche.
After reading Emily Mitchell’s The Last Summer of the World, I do have a different view of Edward Steichen’s photo exhibit and book The Family of Man. Before reading Mitchell’s book, I had enjoyed paging through Steichen’s book and seeing people from all over the world doing similar activities – playing, mourning, falling in love. After reading Mitchell’s book, though, I cannot forget or overlook Steichen’s role in the exhibit. Mitchell portrays Steichen as a man who can concentrate deeply on things that interest him but cannot empathize with or does not care much about people he considers his social inferiors. This brings a new dimension to his Family of Man production, since many of the people pictured are non-Westerners and/or women. Both groups of people were considered inferior to white European men and treated as such. Did Steichen’s prejudices sway his choices of which photographs to put in the exhibit? Did he consider how the subjects of the photographs might feel about having their faces taken out of context and placed alongside those of people they have never met, in lands they may never have heard of? Of course, I thought these questions were important before reading Mitchell’s book, but after having read it, I am less inclined to side with Steichen and trust in his judgment.
A fascinating critique!
Emily Mitchell’s “The Last Summer of the World” gave me more insight on the family album aspect of Steichen’s “Family of Man”. Mitchell presents a young Steichen who believes that photography is “more than…[a representation of]…just surfaces”, that it captures an “impression, a feeling”. Mitchell’s characterized Steichen goes on to say that a photographer is an “artist who tells the truth.” As the novel continues to portray Steichen’s shocked sense of loss over his children, the angry memories of his wife and his irretrievable connection with her, I begin to get a feeling that “The Family of Man” represents in many ways the things Steichen found lacking in his marriage, such as the confusing period where anger and confusion where too much was left unsaid and unheard until reconciliation was impossible. In opposition to that, “The Family of Man” represents so much connectedness, familiarity, and human contact. However, Steichen’s work is not naive. His work, much like his life as pictured in Mitchell’s novel, was tempered by war, hunger, and loss. Steichen’s work represents that in a way that is incorporated into the sense of family and love he lost during his life.
Do you read any political threads between the two books which represent Steichen in such different ways?
Steichen’s ‘vision’ indeed seems to be the key issue here. Mitchell’s “The Last Summer of the World” focuses on this idea of artistic vision, notably in contrast with the lack of what might be called interpersonal vision or understanding in the collapse of Steichen’s first marriage. In this fictional account, his wife takes note of his vision as one that is “beautiful… in which nothing is ugly or broken” and through this vision the world “can be understood and can be loved therefore without reservation” (351). Yet at the same time, there is a notable disparity between this vision and what it “omits”: the “messier and more confusing” aspects of the world that are overlooked (351). Not only that, but his vision seems only to have been realized at the cost of that of his wife’s—she wanted to give her life to music, but his ambitions would not allow it, and therefore the only “vision” that she has left is her account of their lives together (352). This account, at least, suggest that Steichen’s success as an artist coincided with his human failure: he went about philandering without any hint of concern about his wife and selfishly furthered his artistic career to the extent that even his family became peripheral to his pursuits. He was not exactly the embodiment of the beauty he saw in the world.
This brings about the question of to what degree an artist can be removed from their art. As with Steinbeck’s seemingly egoistic defense of “The Grapes of Wrath” as a product of his artistic talent alone (while the photographer that accompanied him was merely cast out of the picture, as it were), Steichen too seems to have—according to this novel, anyway—personal flaws that in many ways contradict the thematic value of his work. Initially he is shocked to hear of the infidelities of his compatriots, but it does not take long for him to give in to the peer-pressured idea that the artist exists on a plane above the common man, that as an artist he is entitled to all manners of freedoms, so as to fulfill a certain artistic appreciation of the world. At times, this freedom—the freedom to being unfaithful—is indeed presented as a source of artistic “intensity” (323) and inspiration, but by the end of the novel it is evident that this kind of behavior has greatly contributed to, if not caused altogether, the collapse of his family and the misery of a great number of people, most notably his wife. Still, Steichen put together “The Family of Man” to show the unity of the human family even when he could not retain the union of his own. “The Last Summer of the World” provided helpful background to this piece. The history of the artist should, to some degree, inform our reading of their art, but at the same time the art should also be appreciated on its own merits. With the history provided in “The Last Summer of the World”, the “Family of Man” project can be understood as a work of a man who was not without flaws, who retained a beautiful vision and dedication to art in spite of the apparent lack of total dedication to others.
Wonderfully comprehensive. What did you make of the whole war photography narrative in the novel?
While Mitchell’s novel does not necessarily make me completely change my opinion on Steichen’s The Family Of Man, it does make me look at his exhibition from a different angle. In a way, The Last Summer of The World is like a particularly well-placed caption on a photograph – it does not block me from having my own thoughts about the original work but it does give me a new way to consider it. It seems that Mitchell is arguing that Steichen organized The Family of Man as a memorial or an elegy to love of all types, as well as to incite curiosity in the otherwise uncurious.
Steichem, as Mitchell describes him, was a constantly curious man. Marion describes him as thinking “but with his eyes. He became consumed and lost sight of other things” (323). Steichem becomes involved, passionately curious with one thing at a time – which would explain his interest in photography. Photographs capture one frozen moment, and thus Steichem could fully immerse himself in that one moment.
Steichem also seems to mourn those who either have never had or have lost the curiosity that he possesses. When describing young soldiers, Steichem explains that “they did not ask him much about his life before the war. They seemed to have lost the knack of curiosity” (12). Steichem searches throughout the novel, albeit unconsciously, for a way to break these soldiers out of their deadened way of living. He wants to find a real moment – a moment that could make anyone curious; this is evidenced in the last lines of the novel, which describe the photograph of Clara and Kate. In the photo “they are looking back into the camera, their eyes saying, We are here” (383). As Mitchell illustrates him, Steichem wants to break through the uninterested haze that many, soldiers or not, seem to be stuck in, by showing them photographs of what he considers real.
I like your formulation of the exhibit as an elegy to love. Where does the political motivation for the exhibit become expressed in the novel?
Emily Mitchell’s, The Last Summer of the World, does contribute to my further understanding of Edward Steichen’s vision for The Family of Man. Although brilliantly written, I viewed the novel as more a work of fiction than anything else. I was fascinated by the way she wove his life together through the work of his novels. Mitchell’s creativity was well developed and beautifully portrayed in the stories she presented behind each photo (for the interlude chapters). Also, her portrayal of Steichen’s experience in war was very realistic and captivating. I also appreciate that Mitchell presented the reader with historical background. Although much of her characters were actual people in Steichen’s life, Mitchell says that she took the liberty to the develop the characters to her liking and play out certain events as she chose fit.
If the book contributed anything at all to my understanding of Man, it would be why Steichen chose to make his photo book/museum exhibit focus on the universal similarities between all people. To try and humanize people of all different backgrounds and erase them of “enemy” labels. In the novel, Steichen contributed to the war effort by serving in the American army as a high ranked observer. Steichen saw the horrors of war and each death or injury of his fellow soldiers hurt him deeply. During the cold war, talks and threats of “hot” war were apparent. The Family of Man was a call to peace. A plea that there was no need for war, people are people everywhere in the world with families, and lovers, and feelings. It could be because of his experience in World War I, portrayed by Mitchell, that Steichen took such efforts to get the message of peace and understanding to the public.
However, although I say that now, while reading the novel I did not think much of Steichen’s Family of Man. I viewed the two books as separate entities because everything Mitchell’s portrayal of Steichen’s life was fictional.
While you are right, that this is a book of fiction, I would not say that everything about it was necessarily fictional.
Something that is not very apparent from “The Family of Man” but does comes very apparent in the novel “The Last Summer of the World,” is that Steichen did not have such a glorious life that I imagined from his pictures of his wife and children. In “The Family of Man,” his family looks almost perfect in the images. His wife is very put together and beautiful while both of his children look healthy and happy. However, once I read Emily Mitchell’s novel, I become more aware of Steichen’s life and how it may be more tarnished that I thought it was.
Although his life is described as a fairytale come true where he lives in Paris and has two daughters with his wife, there are darker sides of his story that is revealed that makes me rethink the vision that I had on “The Family of Man.” “The Last Summer of the World” may be partly fiction but it does have accurate facts about his life. From his life as a photographer in World War I to his tumultuous relationship and downfall of the fabric of his family (because of his wife’s belief that he cheated on her), Steichen had underlining pain and suffering. Shooting images of war, especially being on the front line, resulted in him experiencing horrific and gruesome images that no one could ever forget.
I see Steichen novel of less of an overzealous depiction of what the universal family album should look like and more like a book with a motive. There are two main motives that I think Steichen wanted to get out of his novel. Steichen’s dream life ending up crashing under him which resulted in him trying to find answers that he could not find nor ever really answer. Making this idyllic “universal” family album may be what he thinks he should have experienced in his own life; perhaps it is the “rosebud” from Citizen Cane of his past. This book can help him cope and understand of what he believes a family should be. The other motive that I inferred as a result of Mitchell’s novel is his effort to eradicate or mend the horrors that he saw in war. Making this book, he helps elicit the idea of one love throughout the world influences people to see past the need of war. Mitchell really spells out the pain that Steichen felt because of the war and him wanting to create a tool to help destroy to ideology of violence makes all the more sense.
When you say his “novel” or his “book” do you mean “The Family of Man?” This is a bit confusing because he does not write that as a book. Rather, he curates it as an exhibit. Also, you make it sound as if he wrote “The Last Summer of the World,” which, as you know he did not. Can you think of a way that an exhibit, somehow, functions as a source of healing, or even as a source of evasion, in a way that a book could not?
Reading Emily Mitchell’s the “Last Summer of the World” changed my opinion of Edward Reading Reading Emily Mitchell’s “the Last Summer of the World” gave me greater insight on Edward Steichen’s character. Initially when I looked through “The Family of Man” all I noticed were the flaws. I spent too much time trying to search fro some unwritten message and ignored the big picture. Although Mitchell’s text was a fictional account, it was well written with vivid details. Steichen himself faced many of the day to day issues that anyone would face, but his experiences in the war in combination of his other struggles were rather shocking. I was surprised that “the Family of Man” was based on an extremely optimistic viewpoint. I give Steichen more credit for being able to see past his own struggles to create such a momentous piece. I think Steichen was trying to create the harmonious family relationship that he lacked in his real life. I can also begin to understand, but still disprove of the subtle touches of sexism that are included in “the Family of Man.”
Aside from informing readers of Steichen’s failed family relationship, Mitchell told the stories of Stiechen’s travels and work as an artist. Through his travel he meant countless people and formed good relationships. I think those are what gave him hope and made him believe that humankind would greatly improved if there was no war. I still question if he truly believed that was possible.
What makes you question that? Is it something in “The Family of Man” itself, or something that grew out of “The Last Summer of the World?”
Mitchell’s novel provided insight into the “operator” of The Family of Man. While Steichen himself didn’t take all of the photographs featured in the exhibit and book, he did play a large role in developing the goals and “visions” of the exhibit.
As many others have noted, Steichen focused on the concept of family around the world, perhaps because his own family was so broken and because many of the photographs he had of them were destroyed. However, I’d like to focus on the impact of the war as portrayed in on Steichen’s exhibit.
Steichen often felt as if he and his fellow airmen had been reduced to cogs in a machine. He noted that war stripped them of what made them unique, saying that, “If you take away enough from men, if you boil us down to our physical needs, if you take away the people we love, will lose the things that made us unique. We’ll become identical. Machine parts. Components of the war” (Mitchell 158).
He also was disconcerted by the fact that in the war, machines were viewed as more valuable than men. When some of the men in Steichen’s unit were killed, Van Horn is concerned about the cost of losing more planes, especially the planes that were fitted with new cameras. “So this, Edward thought, is the truth of it: men are inexpensive and replaceable; machines are expensive and rare and must be protected” (Mitchell 183).
In this time of war, it was as if humans and machines had exchanged roles: Men were commodities, while machines were prized, rare and valued. Perhaps this mechanization of humanity inspired Steichen to compile an exhibit that focused on universal feelings and actions that highlighted the diversity of humanity in addition to the striking similarities between cultures. In The Family of Man, humans are not displayed as cogs in a machine; rather, the photographs seem to emanate life and emotion.
While Mitchell’s novel might not have been entirely factual, it was interesting to see how Steichen’s life and the experiences he might have had impacted his work.
This shock over the increasingly nominal value of human beings in the face of industrialization and machinery is a typical legacy of the Great War. His sentiments, as expressed in the novel, are a mouthpiece for the era of modernism.
Whilst reading “The Last Summer of the World”, I couldn’t help but think of the intercalary chapters of “The Grapes of Wrath” and how the use of this literary device added to Steinbeck’s description of the FSA project. Steinbeck used the intercalary chapters as almost a picture; using descriptive language to almost set the scene for the Joad’s to experience. In doing so, it was almost as if he presented a photograph and explained thereafter the story behind in.
Similarly, the intercalary chapters of “The Last Summer of the World” serves as a way to present a generalized situation where Steichen’s life goes back from his experiences in the war to his personal life. What is most interesting about the use of the intercalary chapters is that despite it’s seemingly alternating, separate narratives, it is the juxtaposition of the war life vs. home life that contributes in any way to my understanding of his vision Steichen’s “The Family of Man”. If we are to continue the comparison to Steinbeck, it was as if the war experiences presented the photograph and his personal life explained the story behind them. Steichen was both physically and mentally engulfed in the war; we can’t understand his purpose for wanting to capture the beauty of other families if we don’t understand his personal connection to the cause- the war and subsequently, his difficulty with family relationships. That’s why I thought the intercalary chapters were perfect for the novel.
Therefore I thought the narrative and the presentation was paramount to helping me understand the “Family of Man.” I felt the importance wasn’t within the truth, but the possibility of a motive that is personal to the author, that impacted me the most.
Yes — these intercalary chapters are essential to writing the photographic novels we have seen to this point. Excellent point of comparison.
The narrative Mitchell creates for Steichen’s life makes me believe that the optimistic and universal nature of The Family of Man had much less to do with Steichen’s propagandistic purposes and more with the fatigue from the disillusionment of his adult life.
The effects of Steichen’s troubles with Clara, their bearings on each other’s artistic motivation, drive him to abandon the materialistic and mainstream tendencies of his art. Steichen is on one hand in love with such a pretty woman but at the same time their separation truly lets each one search for self-actualization in their work. This is evidenced in Steichen’s burning of his paintings and on the conversations he has with Auguste Rodin about the nature of art and creativity. The result of this is Steichen’s attempt to universalize the human experience through art. Rather than searching for the exceptional and the confounding, he attempts to expose through photography the similarities between people and how ordinary experiences can be when they reflect among vast cultures.
I see this mainly in his photographs of public institutions in The Family of Man, where Steichen compares how vastly in common people can be. Through this unifying kind of work, Steichen deflects the ideal expectations of his life, instead celebrating the regularities of common experience.
You don’t see any idealism in the mere juxtaposition of “families” from across the world?
Although “The Last Summer of the World” is a fictionalized novel detailing the life of Steichen, it gives great insight into the life of the “operator” behind “The Family of Man”. This universal family album set out to create exactly that, a universal family, in uniting each diverse cultural and ethnic group through common themes, such as birth, love, and childhood. Steichen’s creation seems to be a grasp at optimism, despite his cynical relationships with many of those in his life. Mitchell imagines Steichen remarking, at the beginning of the novel, that he had been repeating the same, military routine for “as long as he could remember” (10). Steichen has lost his humanity through his war experience, becoming solely a part of a machine. His photo album, in connecting all of humanity through a common string of experiences, is an attempt to regain both his own humanity and the humanity of those brutally killed in a war in which he partook.
Further, Mitchell paints Steichen’s life at this point as fairly loveless, due to the failure of his marriage and the subsequent failure of his family. Thus, “The Family of Man” can also be seen as a sad attempt to reach back through time and create what could have been, for him, a personal family album filled with love. This pain may be why his album reflects so much on the power and love of the couple/parents of the universal family, who form “a multitude” (182).
Thus, with this novel, although fiction, the reader is better able to obtain a view of the life of Steichen whose background, as with all artists, formed a deep impression on the art he created.
I agree that “optimism” is a key term here. Also, “healing” on a personal and a more general level.
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