When I was still in my twenties, burning with confusion and angst, I was driven to search relentlessly for my Self. My mother had always told me not to delve too much, and so it was inevitable. In addition to searching in most of the wrong places, I spent a fair amount of time— well spent time— alone in bookstores and books looking for it.
Of all the books that came and left, or lingered, or struck me like lightening, there is among them only one book of photographs. It seemed to float in one day out of the blue and never left, even though I lost the actual book somewhere along the way. You may know this book, too, and still have it; or like me, you may have had it and lost it. It’s the stunning collection of black and white photographs known as The Family of Man: no words, just photographs.
Since I no longer have the book myself, but it is heavily on my mind right now, I Googled Wikipedia to find out what it said:
The Family of Man was originally a photograph exhibition in 1955 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. It was curated by Edward Steichen. The 508 photos by 273 famous and unknown photographers from 68 countries around the world were selected from almost 2 million. They offer a striking snapshot of the human experience which lingers on birth, love, and joy, but also touches war, privation, illness, and death. His purpose was to prove visually the universality of human experience…”
I didn’t know any of this when I stumbled into the book in a North Beach bookstore during my Blue Period (long after 1955; I’m not that old…). I just remember picking it up and slowly leafing through it, page by page, until I was thoroughly swept away by life, in the photographic sense. One of the photos you may have seen elsewhere over the years is of the back side of two toddlers holding hands, a boy and a girl, toddling together down a dusty road. It’s been used as a greeting card over the years. Another is of an old man’s gnarled fingers holding a pencil and practicing writing the letter “a” on a lined piece of paper. That one got to me. Another one was of a young couple obviously full of love and expectation repeating their marriage vows before an altar in a church. (Will that ever be me?, I couldn’t help thinking. )
There was a whole section of the book on work: a cross-cultural selection of photographs of diverse people working diverse jobs, basically for the same universal reason – to put food on the table for themselves and their families. There was the famous photograph by Dorothea Lange of the Migrant Mother (1936), haggard from worry, her two children’s faces hidden from the camera in an effort to hide their shame. I stung with a different kind of shame: privilege. There were weddings, funerals, war and more. Were there graduation rituals? I can’t remember.
As I write this, I am in Nevada (pronounced with a hard a, Pop. 671), Texas visiting my sister Susan for a week. Nevada is about 40 miles northeast of Dallas, right down the road a piece from Farmersville, Royse City, and Wiley. Specifically, I am sitting at her glossy, hard-maple dining room table, the one she bought when she first got married, and at which I have eaten countless times over the years, but not for at least five now. It’s good to be back. She made me my favorite egg salad sandwich, and we are sitting at the table for several hours talking about all things great and small.
I am surrounded by her half of our family’s heirlooms, like my Grandma Cora’s antique china cabinet full of the fancy gold-edged tea cups I grew up with, my Grandma Alice’s cut glass bowl, and my aunt’s fine Belleek teapot. My mother’s piano, the walnut upright she bought when we moved from our two-bedroom bungalow on Fifth Avenue in Sacramento to the Ozzie and Harriett house on Land Park Drive. Susan was 10, and I was 7. This is the piano we both learned to play on, and the one my mother played at all the parties, the one we harmonized around while she took requests. We could all carry a tune.
I am beyond nostalgic.
Click here for Part II…