Decontextualization, Recontextualization, and the Spectacle : On the Erasure of Suffering in the Family of Man Through Photographs of Children

1. “China’s rice bowl”[1] : How Decontextualization Can Mitigate the Perceived Suffering in a Photograph

Figure 1, George Silk, Starving child holding out an empty rice bowl during famine. A copy of a print of the image as it appears in the Family of Man.[2]

In part, the Family of Man is a reaction to what Steichen saw as the failure of the previous mode of photojournalism. Images of war and suffering were termed, by him, to be a “negative approach” which at first affected a disgust or revulsion in the public, which would later turn to dismissal or outright ignorance. Instead, Steichen wanted to use a “positive approach.” He wanted to get people’s emotions wrapped up in something larger than themselves, something “made on the heart, not the head.”[3] This means that, in both the exhibition and the book, representations of war and suffering are relatively rare. The subject of the first part of this essay, George Silk’s photograph of a child with an empty rice bowl, comes from one of these rare sections of suffering.

In 1946, the photographer George Silk photographed the post-​war famine in China for LIFE Magazine. One of his photographs from the trip was selected for inclusion in the Family of Man exhibition and book. Within the context of the book, it is not especially remarkable. Dorothea-Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” occupies the bottom-​right of the previous two-​page spread, which is itself dominated by another FSA image of a woman who looks similar to Florence Thompson. Loosely, these images all belong to a section on hunger, coming after some general, but not graphic, photos of suffering. On pages 144 through 149, there are six images of people comforting one another. A lot of arms on backs and faces nestled in bosoms, paired with a quote from William Blake, “For Mercy has a human heart, / Pity a human face….”[4] Pages 150 through 153 all deal with hunger, paired with two quotes : “What region of the earth is not full of our calamities ?”[5] Steichen, here, is attempting to make the viewer realize famine as a political problem, one caused by humanity. This two-​page spread is entirely photographs from the Great Depression, yet the next two pages depict hunger globally. The second quote, “…Nothing is real to use but hunger,” [6] sits beneath a large photograph of a woman eating a piece of bread. Here is Steichen’s theme of unity to behold — there are not only the global motifs of Ring Around the Rosie, play, family, and so on but also these unacceptable events (or violations of rights). In a way, the message is essentially apolitical : hunger and famine can affect us all, and we have caused it (either through poor farming practices, or war). Here, finally, is George Silk’s photograph, on the top-​right corner of page 153.

It is a solemn, undramatic photograph. A boy from China stands with an empty rice bowl, clutching a small bag. Behind him sits some stones, grass, and a lake with hills in the distance. His clothes are dirty, and his shoes and hat look to be in a state of disrepair. He holds out the bowl, potentially waiting for food. To the left of this photograph there is a photograph of a seemingly naked boy, from India, eating what appears to be rice. Next, there is a photograph of women, again from India, holding out their hands. The following photograph is of a man, again from India, covered in blankets and either asleep or dead. An empty tin lies next to him. Finally, there is a photograph of an elderly woman from the “Arctic.” The only context for George Silk’s photograph, then, is among other depictions of hunger and famine, primarily from America and India.

Figure 2, LIFE, May 13, 1946. Pages 28 – 19.[7]

Figure 3. LIFE, May 13, 1946. Pages 30 – 31.

George Silk’s photograph was first published in LIFE Magazine, in May 1946 (Figure 3). The photograph in LIFE is more tightly cropped, and flipped horizontally. It becomes clear that he is also holding chopsticks in the hand holding the bag. The caption reads, “WITH EMPTY BOWL a little boy begs for food from passers-​by. Most child beggars come to the city because of supposed free rice there. On arriving they learn there is not enough for all and usually they die in the streets.”[8] Hunan’s “fields are seared dead by drought.” “Years of war have uprooted railroad tracks, smashed the bridges, and gutted the roads.” The regions infrastructure was destroyed to fight the Japanese. The Japanese killed their plough animals.[9] The LIFE article, like Steichen, places blame for the famine directly upon war, albeit in a more politicized manner.

Figure 4. China Famine, Hunan Province (1946). George Silk.[13]

Figure 5. China Famine, Hunan Province (May 1946) by George Silk. LIFE Photo Collection.[14]

Figure 6. LIFE, China Famine, Hunan Province (May 1946). George Silk.[15]

Rather than act as an example of famine and suffering’s global reach, here the image acts as illustration of the famine in 1946, affecting the “once-​rich ‘rice-​bowl’.”[10] It is by far the least graphic photograph of Silk’s published in this LIFE story, with others depicting “half-​starved farmers” replacing the now dead oxen, children “lying half dead” in the street, an orphan covered in skin lesions, and visibly emaciated children (see Figure 7).[11] There are more photographs from the famine, and of the boy himself, that went unpublished at the time, but are now extant on the LIFE archives at the Google Cultural Institute.[12] One shows the boy more actively begging and engaging with the camera, with more of the background in view (Figure 4). Another photograph is shot from a further distance, and more loosely framed. The body of what might be a young girl is cut in half by the right edge of the frame, her face obscured. Of all the photographs available in the Google archive, this seems to provide the most context in a singular photograph. Unlike the original LIFE and Family of Man photographs, this one most clearly shows the horizon, including small structures that are not visible in the “originals.” (Figure 5) This photo with additional context can provide for a different reading from the “original,” where he seems isolated and alone (Figure 1). Is he somewhere in the countryside on the outskirts of a city or town ? The only impression of man we can see in the original are what seem to be cut stones forming some sort of road or platform behind him, suggesting that he is begging for food from passing travellers. In Figure 4 and Figure 5, which provide more context, we learn that he is relatively near a village or city. Figure 5 shows us that he likely is not alone, but we cannot know if that bisected figure is family or another orphaned child.

Figure 7. Selection of photographs by George Silk from the LIFE Photo Collection. “China Famine, Hunan Province (May 1946).“ [16]

A recurring motif in George Silk’s coverage, published or otherwise, of the famine is that of the empty rice bowl. Immediately recognizable is the irony of this motif with the common name ascribed to the province by LIFE, which calls Hunan province “the once-​rich ‘rice bowl.’” [17] The Ottawa Citizen’s headline for a story about the famine, dated May 7, 1946 reads, “Great China Rice Bowl Empty, Millions Dying.”[18] The caption calls the story a, “camera-​typewriter study of what must be the most seriously affected famine area in the world.”[19] It is paired with a stark, black and white photograph depicting a crowd holding up empty rice bowls (the photographer is unattributed). The story’s lead reads, “Two-​thirds of her lush, fertile, terraced valleys … are now unplowed and unplanted. Lack of rice seed, lack of farm implements, lack of plow animals, lack of fertilizer has transformed the these rich areas into sun-​dried, parched fields.” There is a strange, latent colonial rhetoric here — the first few sentences paint the famine’s cause as a lack of use of a resource (arable land), painting an image of destroyed, barren landscape. Later, the story calls it “man-​made and man-​aggravated,” placing blame upon the “Japs” who made Hunan into their last stand in the war against China. The war destroyed the railways and communication lines. It reads largely like the LIFE piece, but also places blame upon corrupt local officials raising the price of rice in the name of profit. “[Ta Kung Pao, a “leading” newspaper] charged further that some officials are so corrupt that … they would prevent the distribution of” relief supplies with the UNRRA substantiating the claims.[20] A New York Time’s story from 2013 also refers to Hunan Province as “China’s rice bowl.”[21] The Atlantic’s CityLab referred to Hunan Province the same way in 2014.[22] Wherever the phrase comes from originally, it has maintained.

As the oldest source of this informal name for Hunan seems to be the Ottawa Citizen article, so the origin of the name seems unattributable. Is it possible that “China’s rice bowl,” as a name, rose alongside the iconography of the empty rice bowl ? Perhaps an editor sees a story about the once rich, hilly province paired with the photograph of the empty rice bowls and feels it would be a fittingly ironic name, making the scale of the disaster more immediate and total. China’s metaphorical rice bowl is empty, just like the physical rice bowls of its inhabitants. It is maybe fitting, then, that one of the images of hunger Steichen chose is both a metaphor for the physical place, and an icon for it that was already established in the news media. While the image of the Chinese boy itself wasn’t necessarily iconic alone (Figure 1), the empty rice bowl and starving person was established as a motif in the news coverage of the famine at the time. Even though Steichen removed the original context of the image (and both he and LIFE chose an image that itself narrowed down the available visual context within the frame, removing the buildings and the other people he was with), is it possible that the empty bowl motif would have been recognized by the original audience of the Family of Man exhibition ? 1955 was only 9 years after the original famine, after all.

In choosing this photograph from the series of the famine, and removing specific details about its context, Steichen has tried to depoliticize the photograph. Instead of showing some of the more horrific photographs, he has shown us one with a boy who almost looks familiar. We cannot tell how emaciated he is; only that he needs food. He looks more hopeful than scared or beyond redemption. That is to say, out of all of the images in originally published in LIFE, he is the only person who does not look like they will soon die. Other photographs of the event, such as the one in the Ottawa Star and the unpublished George Silk photographs, are much more extreme. Figure 7 shows people who are injured, or lying in the gutter. The closer to death they seem, the less familiar they look. But the boy still has enough dignity to cling onto his chopsticks — which is perhaps the most human, relatable thing about him. Thus through stripping the photograph of its context, in choosing a less-​extreme depiction of the famine, Steichen has made it easier to recognize the suffering while still relating to the dignity and humanity of the child.

In 1959, at the first exhibition of the Family of Man in Soviet Russia, George Silk’s photograph was not received as an apolitical depiction of hunger. Instead, it became one of the few images to be removed from the show, at the request of the Russians. AP reported the story under the headline “Reds Object. U.S. Drops Picture at Moscow Fair.”

A.P. Moscow. August 24. The picture of a Chinese child holding an empty rice bowl, taken by George Silk of Life Magazine, has been removed from Edward Steichen’s Family of Man display at the American exhibition. U.S. Officials said today it was taken down in response to Soviet Objections. They said fair director Harold McClellan first explained to complaining Russians that the picture was meant to be a universal symbol of hunger and had a rightful place in the collection. But he agreed to the removal after liaison authorities were backed up by M. S. Nesterov, Chairman of the Soviet Union Chamber of Commerce, which helped Mr. McClellan arrange the fair. The picture was taken by Mr. Silk in famine stricken Hunan Province in 1946. [23]

Notably, the AP report gives no reason for the Soviet authorities’ request for removal of the image. Unlike many of the images in the show, where people were supposed to move through and appreciate them as a whole, this one was thrust into the US public’s attention.

A small battle in the new Cold War was thus lost. A Hartford Courant editorial, “Empty Bowl, Empty Head” at the time notes the exclusion of the Soviet’s reasons for removal, and frames it as an ideological fight, “Whether they objected on behalf of their Red Chinese colleagues or the general notion that nobody goes hungry under the Communist system wasn’t brought out.”[24] The context that the AP report gives is not explicit in outlining the images pre-​communist-​China origins, but it is subtly used as part of the ideological battle in the US press. Russia makes an “empty headed objection” after “reducing everything to ideology,” because, as McClellan said, the photograph was only supposed to be a universal symbol.

After returning from Moscow, Steichen addressed the removal of the image on Meet the Press, with reporter Bob Considine :

Considine : Captain Steichen, I agree with your distinguished brother-​in-​law that this is an epic poem, “The Family of Man,” magnificent work, as we all know. But it lost one of its stanzas the other day…which symbolizes the hunger of the world, was given the bum’s rush, let’s say, out of the exhibit. …

Steichen : … I didn’t like to see the picture go. It was one of a series showing family. I think they had some leg to stand on because there was an understanding … that there was to be nothing of the nature of propaganda in any of these exhibitions. I could see how they would stretch that as anti-​communist propaganda.[25]

Steichen recognizes the complexity of the image here, and how it might be interpreted differently depending on context. To him, it shows “family.” But he understands that, to communists, a depiction of famine in China could be seen as an attack on them and their ally (even if it did not happen in communist China). When exhibited next to American washing machines, a picture of famine is not just a picture of famine in the general sense. It is coded and interpreted by its audience, and Steichen is aware that he cannot force every viewer to have the same understanding, though McClellan and Considine continued to characterize it as a global symbol of hunger in the “world.” Carl Sandburg was also on the Meet the Press show, where he remarked that the Russians reacted to the images “as though they were seeing people rather than pictures of people.” [26] Here the disconnect between two modes of photography is made clear, with Steichen’s search for iconic symbols opposed to photography’s ability to literally document individual people. The Russians were unable to view the Family of Man in the way Steichen intended, instead seeing series of stories about people (which were then interpreted as detrimental politically) rather than an “epic poem” uniting all of humanity.

In 2010, the photograph gained a new life, now used deliberately to act as an icon for famine in communist China, when used as the cover for Frank Dikötter’s book, Mao’s Great Famine. The boy has been colorized and placed over a new background, misrepresenting him as a victim of Mao’s Great Leap Forward instead of post-​war destruction.[27] The subtitle of Dikötter’s book, directly beneath the now heavily photoshopped photograph of the boy, reads, “The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe.” Here he has unabashedly become the charged propaganda image the Soviet authorities saw in 1959, a dig against the failure of the communist ideology.

Ultimately, George Silk’s photograph of the Chinese boy was a casualty in the larger cultural and ideological war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Where Steichen had attempted to create global symbols for hunger, the Soviets saw a propaganda piece aimed at a newly communist China. Even though there were more depictions of hunger from America and India, those were perhaps seen, in a sense, the way Steichen wanted them seen : examples of famine, of hunger, stemming from human failures unrelated to pure ideology. The Dustbowl was maybe a temporary failure of Western, or American ideals, but what would have been 30 year old images at the time could be read just like that : a famine, a hunger, in the past that was solved. The other images can perhaps be understood in a post-​war context, or at least they did not depict communist countries so the Soviets had no reason to object. With Steichen’s removal of context for the image, all that can be read is “starving Chinese boy.” In 1959, in Moscow, it was easy to imagine another possible reading : “starving communist Chinese boy.” No one was there holding up a 1946 copy of Life, showing people the more dramatic images, or reading the text blaming the Japanese. The context of the Moscow exhibition, next to American suburban and consumer ideals, at the height of the ideological battle between superpowers meant that the whole show would be read differently. Everything was up to a skeptical eye, with Pravda questioning statistics and people asking for more. It would be easy for Steichen’s images to fall out of his grasp and be interpreted as more than just global symbols of family.

2. George Silk, Edward Steichen, and Family : How Decontextualization Can Strip a Photograph of Suffering

Figure 8. “Grandfather and grandchild, aftermath of a hurricane” George Silk, LIFE Photo Collection, 1951. [28]

While the meaning in George Silk’s photograph of a Chinese boy was altered by Steichen’s (and to a lesser extent, LIFE’s) decontextualization of the image through omitting the historical context of the image in addition to cropping and curation, it was still immediately recognizable as a photograph of starvation; of suffering. Edward Steichen decontextualized another one of George Silk’s news photographs in such an extreme way that what was an image of suffering became an image of care.[29]

If Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition can be understood as a response to the “negative humanism” mode of documentary photography, then George Silk’s image of a grandfather and grandson can be understood as a classically negatively humanist image recontextualized — or, in a sense, decontextualized; stripped of its original context to the point where it has been stripped of its original meaning — to work in the “positive humanist” mode. Stripped of its original context as a photograph depicting the aftermath of a hurricane, the image becomes an icon for the (in Steichen’s view) “universal” nature of familial love/bonds.

In the Family of Man exhibition catalog, George Silk’s photograph dominates page 52, captioned “Jamaica, British West Indies. George Silk Life.”[30] It is in what could be termed a childhood or youth section, beginning on pages 22 with Wayne Miller’s photographs of his wife in labor, and page 23 with his photograph of his newly born son, still connected to his mother (only her outstretched hands visible, the frame is dominated by the male doctor in scrubs, holding the baby only by his leg) via umbilical cord. Throughout this section there are many pictures of the familial embrace — mothers nursing babies, mothers gazing into their children’s eyes, Congolese fathers wearing little beyond the sling their child is in[31], happy families of all creeds and colors, Eisenstaedt’s famous photo of children marching behind a band leader[32], children at play, children fighting[33], and so on — many of the symbols, signs, and signifiers of childhood and family. There isn’t much suffering depicted in the lead-​up to Silk’s photograph, save for a Dorothea Lange photograph on page 48 that might be easily recognizable as coming from the same set Migrant Mother belongs to, where the child wears dirty, torn-​but-​mended clothes.

Throughout the childhood section (for the purposes of this paper, pages 22 – 53), out of 72 total photographs : 49 photographs depict exclusively white subjects, 9 photographs depict black subjects (4 from the USA, 2 from what is now Botswana, 1 from “Congo,” and the subject of this essay from Jamaica), 12 depict non-​white subjects whose ethnicity is difficult to determine without further research, and the photograph from Cuba contains subjects of indeterminate ethnicity. While it is an ultimately impossible task to define visual signifiers for economic class, almost none of the images explicitly depict either poverty or wealth.[34] It might be easy to imagine the subjects of these images to fit into some ethereal ideal of middle class — some kind of unknowable, seemingly comfortable midway point between poverty and wealth. [35] (Please see Table 1, where I have attempted to classify the demographics of the photographs in this section.)

This “childhood” section shows us mostly white, mostly Western, mostly happy families. Few of the photographs point to a definite economic class, though of those, more point to a lack of wealth rather than abundance. The notable exceptions are the photographs from Bechuanaland and South Africa, which depict black subjects in exotic dress and locals, and potentially the few photographs from Asia (though any potential economics are indeterminate from the photographs alone). Most of these photographs, then, are easily familiar to what might be an average audience at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955 — white faces, Western scenes, few indicators of extreme poverty or wealth. There is little to no apparent suffering on these pages; none of that detestable negative humanism.

Directly preceding Silk’s photograph, on page 50, there is another Dorothea Lange photograph of a white, American man, in glasses, holding a baby wrapped in a lacey blanket. Opposite, a Nat Farbman photograph from Bechuanaland (a British colony which would later become Botswana [36]), of two young, black men hunting an exotic animal with a spear. Next is the Silk photograph of a young-​looking black man, carefully embracing a toddler in then British-​controlled Jamaica. Below it, three small photographs depict Western family life — A. Uzlyan photographs what might be a white father and son exercising in the USSR, Eisenstaedt photographs what might be a black father and son primping in front of an ornate piece of furniture (though the wallpaper is peeling), and Gottfried Rainer’s photograph shows us a man playing an instrument with his son in Austria. The opposite page has an American soldier holding a crying boy, an Arbus shot shows us an American, white father and son reading newspapers from Vogue, and Martha Kitchen shows us another happy, white, American father and son. The next pages begin a section that focuses more widely on family units, rather than on children or strict parent/child bonds.

George Silk’s photograph of the Jamaican man and child is then, in a sense, classless. It is starkly contrasted by the preceding primitive (in the sense that the MoMA audience might have read the photograph as such) scene, though had it been opposed to the photograph of white horseback riders it might be read as more austere. A man who is not particularly old nor particularly young caresses a baby resting on cloth on a simple wooden floor. A wicker hat lies next to them, and trees blur in the sun beyond. The clothing of the man seems practical and undamaged. They do not look particularly wealthy or poor, and seem to be in good health.[37] It is then easy to read the photograph as a familial, loving gesture — maybe that of a father, grandfather, brother, or uncle. In the man’s left hand is a white cloth, so perhaps he is bathing the child. This is all Steichen tells the audience, then — someone in a relatively far-​off place cares for their child in a way we, the audience, might care for ours. They are different, but the same. Thus the positive humanism succeeds, and we see a universal, human action and connection.

Figure 9. LIFE, September 3, 1951. “A Hurricane Leaves Jamaica in Despair.“[38]

The photograph was first published in Life Magazine, September 3, 1951 for the story titled “A Hurricane Leaves Jamaica in Despair : Hunger and epidemic threaten the homeless.”[39] It depicts the aftermath of Hurricane Charlie, which hit Jamaica on August 17, 1951.[40] The caption for the photograph reads, “In Morant Bay Schoolhouse sheltering 60 children made homeless by the storm, a Jamaican laborer bends above his feverish grandchild but finds no signs of typhoid fever islanders feared would break out.”[41] Now the photograph is no longer just a classless photograph of a family member caring for a child; it fits into the old mode of negative humanism, depicting the aftermath of a hurricane wherein a grandfather cares for his sick grandchild among homeless children in an improvised shelter. He is a laborer, now his economic place, potentially low, is known. “At least 152 were dead, 2,000 injured.” Livelihoods were lost with the destruction of “20,000 buildings destroyed or badly damaged,” “The survivors’ livelihood had disappeared in plantations and farms ruined,” and “Twenty-​five thousand were homeless.”[42] In this context, this pair is no longer an icon for universal human bonds but instead they have become an icon for suffering, despair, and uprooted lives. Of course, from the Life article alone we cannot know if the homes and livelihoods for this family have been destroyed, ruined, or damaged. As with Steichen’s usage, the context for this photograph has dictated the most immediate reading, and caption tells us they are in an improvised homeless shelter. Aside from the (now) overt image of the suffering is of this grandfather and feverish grandchild, the rest of the photographs for the story depict : a “sister” bringing tea to a “victim,” a photograph of “a floor and a wall” which, nonetheless, does not show the implicit lack of a roof, a boy being vaccinated, “Simms Balti” rebuilding his home, a destroyed hospital being cleared of debris, and workers salvaging “green bananas from [a] ruined grove.”[43] Of all the subjects in the photograph, Life names only the man rebuilding. The people cleaning up in the aftermath, or caring for the victims of the hurricane, go nameless.

Table 1. Demographics in the Family of Man[44]

Page

Ethnicity

Country

Hints at economic class

22 

white

USA

n/a

22 

white

USA

n/a

23 

white

USA

n/a

24 

white

USA

n/a

25 

white

USA

n/a

25 

white

Holland

n/a

26 

black

USA

n/a

26 

nw

India

Clothing looks dirty, woven cot, jewelry

26 

white

Australia

n/a

27 

nw

Japan

n/a

27 

nw

India

n/a

27 

white

USA

cracking wall

27 

white

USA

n/a

28 

black

Congo

not-​Westernized

28 

nw

Siberia”

n/a

28 

nw

Arctic”

n/a

28 

white

USA

n/a

28 

white

USA

n/a

29 

nw

Guatemala

cracking column

29 

nw

China

n/a

29 

white

USSR

n/a

30 

nw

India

n/a

30 

white

USA

n/a

31 

?

Cuba

n/a

31 

white

USA

recreational horseback riding

31 

white

Lapland”

n/a

31 

white

Austria

n/a

32 

black

USA

n/a

33 

white

USA

n/a, visible jewelry

34 

black

South Africa

not-​Westernized

34 

nw

India

n/a

34 

white

Germany

n/a

35 

black

Bechuanaland

not-​Westernized

36 

white

Austria

Violin

37 

nw

Peru

Flute player, repeated photo

38 

white

USA

kids playing in ill-​fitting, dirty clothes, paint-​splattered wall, no shoes

38 

white

England

n/a

38 

white

USA

kid on stoop, puppy with string as a leash

39 

white

USA

leather baseball glove

39 

white

USA

n/a

39 

white

USA

carousel

40 

black

USA

at circus/carnival ?

40 

white

USA

n/a

40 

white

USA

Ruth Orkin’s “The Card Players”

41 

white

England

n/a

42 

white

USA

Bureau of Mines”

43 

white

Sweden

n/a

44 

n/a

Germany

n/a

44 

white

France

n/a

45 

nw

Java

only visible clothing is t-​shirt, no shoes

46 

white

USA

n/a

46 

white

USA

n/a

46 

white

USA

n/a

47 

white

USA

n/a

48 

white

Canada

small farmhouse, simple wire fence

49 

white

Poland

n/a

49 

white

USA

n/a

49 

white

Italy

disheveled clothes, looks skinny, barefoot on what might be street

49 

white

USA

elegant clothing

49 

white

USA

Dorothea Lange FSA photo, damaged, dirty clothes, skinny, same set as Migrant Mother

49 

white

USA

dirty

50 

white

USA

glasses, strikingly clean lace blanket

51 

black

Bechuanaland

not-​Westernized

52 

black

Jamaica

George Silk’s photograph in this essay

52 

black

USA

n/a, damaged wallpaper, elegant-​looking furniture

52 

white

USSR

n/a

52 

white

Austria

clarinet

53 

white

USA

soldier, toddler in sailor dress

53 

white

USA

father/son newspaper reading, large couch

53 

white

USA

n/a

3637 

white

USA

marching band uniform

3. One Year Before Robert Moses : Play and Poverty in the Family of Man

Figure 10. “Ruth Orkin, THE CARD PLAYERS—Auction Result.” 1947 [45]

In the 1940 s, Ruth Orkin lived in the West Village of New York City. She began photographing the kids run amok on the neighborhood, following the lives of some of the city’s less privileged inhabitants in the transitionary stage between post-​war America and Robert Moses’ radical reformation of New York. In 1948, Robert Moses headed the Slum Clearance Committee and began the serious urban renewal projects that would reshape New York, forgoing public transportation for series of highways leading to a deurbanification and the expansion of New York City’s suburbs. [46] A few short years later, in 1951, Levittown opened and between 1950 and 1970 the population of towns in New York State grew 92 %.[47] In 1947, Ruth Orkin photographed children playing cards in her Greenwich Village neighborhood, isolating childhood play from the powerful economic forces and structures in the changing city. With the move to suburbs, parents stopped imagining their kids playing in city streets and instead began to have dreams of green grass and bare feet. What becomes of the city, then, in a period of post-​war growth, new forms of mass production for living (houses and things), cheaper mortgages, and a new American dream ?

Alternately referred to as “The Card Players”[48] or “The Cardplayers” [49], Ruth Orkin’s sequence of six photographs appears on page 40 in the Family of Man in a single column. It is the only sequence in the exhibition and book, and thus potentially the most overt reference to film. (Ruth Orkin later went on to make films, including Little Fugitive, which will be referenced later.) The child with the most evocative expression is Marilyn, the blonde girl in the middle, who alternates surprise, bemusement, frustration, and, in the last frame, excited amazement at what might be her success in the card game. Marilyn, four or four and a half years old, plays cards on a wagon reading “JO-ANNE’S EXP.” with her brother Jimmy, and an unknown child, at the corners of Horatio and Washington streets in Greenwich Village in 1947.[50] Her name is alternately spelled Marylin[51] or Marilyn[52], and in one auction is referred to as “Marilyn Hernon, aged 4½ Washington & Horatio St. Greenwich Village”[53], though her brother Jimmy[54] is referred to as “Jimmy Hendon” in LIFE.[55] Census results have been inconclusive, but there is a 1940 census record for James Hernon, estimated birth year 1939, who lived at 791 Washington Street.[56] His parents are listed as having not attended “school or college,” with his father James having left school after 8 th grade. His father was employed as a chauffeur, but only worked 10 hours in the week prior to the census taken. He earned $1200 in 1939, which would be about $20,188.71 today (accounting for inflation).[57] Another of Ruth Orkin’s photographs depicts the corner of Washington and Horatio streets c. 1940 as a trash-​ridden barren wasteland, with adults and children staring into a foggy abyss, which seems to swallow the buildings as they fade into the distance (Figure 11).[58]

Figure 11. “Ruth Orkin, Sunday Afternoon at Horatio and Washington Streets, Greenwich Village (Sunday Afternoon in the Slums) — Auction Result” c. 1940 [59]

Figure 12. James Hernon’s census records.[60]

The later life of the photo, post– Family of Man, is sparse. Most research leads to auction records, where the photographs are usually sold together as a sequence,[61][62][63][64][65][66][67][68] [69][70] selling between about $10,000 and $20,000, and occasionally as a selection from the larger sequence for around $2,000.[71] In 1975, the photograph was turned into a lithograph poster with the caption, “WHENGROW UP I / AIN’T GONNA WORK IN / NO GODAM OFFICE,” by D. Wilson of Wilson Giftware Corp (Figure 13).[72]

Figure 13. “Figi/Wilson Giftware Corp. ~ publisher When I Grow Up… poster work on paper 1975.“ [73]

The “childhood section” of the Family of Man, as defined in Section 2, largely depicts interiority through space. There are lots of mothers and children, and families, inside their homes — giving birth (22 – 23), post-​birth care of babies (24 – 29, 33, 34) — but play happens outside. The home, which becomes the site of care, of mothering, of that classically feminine home-​life, or rather the life dominated by the parent – child structure, is inside. It is a less active life, and most of the pictures Steichen has chosen are a kind of rest. The life of activity happens outside. Exploration (Belgian Congo, 28), transportation/movement (Lapland, 31), horseback riding (31), art making (South Africa, 34), and play (Bechuanaland 35, 36 – 47), the hunt (Bechuanaland 51). The motion blur and naked dive-​turned-​splash of Steichen’s own photograph on page 39 is perhaps the best example of this association between play and nature, with the naked child dynamically, radically, joining beautiful, life-​giving water. At times, there is a synthesis of the inside and the out, between rest and action. Willy Ronis’ picture from France on page 44 is shot from inside, with open glass doors framing a boy running, launching a glider toy. The parental gaze is inherent, here — perhaps Willy Ronis is the father — the camera points down from a dark, still interior out into a vibrantly bright, lush nature with the child, free of responsibilities and worry, at play. Or consider Ronny Jacques’ stoic children, downhill from what is presumably their family home, pushed up against a fence (perhaps further symbolizing the power dynamic between parent and child). Or the father/grandfather / child/grandchild relationships of care or mimicry on page 52 (including Silk’s Jamaican photograph), where the children are to be cared for, or are to become their parents. (That page, in particular, might be rich for understanding Steichen’s dreams of the future and optimism, with children exercising or preening in front of a mirror or learning an instrument, all forms of personal growth, paired with the grandfather caring for his sick child (though we don’t necessarily know that) so hopefully he might survive and become healthy, just as society might grow past its man-​made ills through man-​facilitated growth. But that’s another essay.) Or Russell Lee’s photograph of children on a porch, which might be considered an intermediary stage between the inside (parental control) and the outside (freedom). Between the safety of home and the expanse of potential experience (which we cannot see), the children are happy (or at least performing smiles). There exists a balance between parental protection and the chance of risk, perhaps predicting the relative calm and protection of the suburbanism that was beginning to change and dominate American society at the time of the exhibition.

Figure 14. LIFE November 26, 1951. “Jimmy Tells About Kitty and the King,” Ruth Orkin, 1947. (Pages 68 – 69) [74]

But Ruth Orkin’s photo is just before the suburban dream explodes, before helicopter parenting. In her photo series, which sits on page 40 (in the middle/end of the “childhood” section). Here the children mimic adults, too, though without their oversight. They are let loose on the street, playing an adult game with childlike intentions. They are not gambling, but instead are at a more pure form of play — nothing to lose but entertainment and growth. In the picture are Marilyn, her brother Jimmy, and a third, unknown child. One of Orkin’s early photo essays, “Jimmy the Storyteller,” first published in Look in 1946 [75] (and later in LIFE, November 26, 1951 where it won an award[76]), depicts Jimmy retelling the story of the movie Kitty, a 1945 “rags to riches” costume drama set in 1780 s London (also arguably a transitional time of the Industrial Revolution and towards urbanization), which is perhaps more fit for adults than children. In both of these, parents and symbols of parental control are absent, subtly indicating the economic status of the children. In a system of poverty, parents often aren’t around due to the need to work many hours, the criminalization of the poor, or other social factors leading to less parental involvement. In these sequences, The Cardplayers and Jimmy the Storyteller, when the parents are away the children start imitating adult behavior in a potentially detrimental way. Children play cards, perhaps not knowing the significance of gambling and yet living around it. Children retell adult-​oriented movies. Later, Orkin would make the film Little Fugitive (1953) with Ray Ashley and her husband Morris Engel.

The film tells the story of a boy, who looks awfully similar to Jimmy Hendon, who believes he has accidentally killed his brother (he hasn’t). [77] He runs away to Coney Island, a playground for children and adults alike. Free from parental control he soon forgets his worries and explores the veritable paradise. Eventually he makes his way home, his mother none-​the-​wiser about his adventures, and the film ends with an ironic twist : the mother decides to reward the boy’s good behavior (ignorant of what transpired) with a trip to Coney Island. Thus even though the boy managed to escape parental control temporarily, and come out largely unscathed (though believing you have killed your brother sounds like a transformative experience, even if we are not privy to its aftermath) and, ironically, when the parental control returns the boy is rewarded with exactly what he sought out, perhaps indicating a parent’s ability to understand their child on a deep level, making the parental control less of a nefarious or oppressive relationship, and more of a guiding figure. When mom’s gone, the son does what she would have done for him regardless.

The backdrop, the setting of Ruth Orkin’s series (both The Cardplayers and Jimmy the Storyteller) is one of profound poverty. If those census records and income estimates are relevant and trustworthy, then this family relied on sporadic work and existed just below what would be the modern conception of the poverty line. Further census records are not forthcoming, so it is difficult to tell what became of James “Hernon” and his family. But in both these photo series, though they are taken against a backdrop of poverty, the poverty is not overtly visible. Ruth Orkin has already decontextualized the image, and instead of reading as children run amok (as it might have been had the children been against the backdrop of “Sunday Afternoon in the Slum” (Figure 11)). She knows her neighborhood is poor, but perhaps she too was exhausted by the negative humanism that Steichen despised, and so made a conscious choice to distill these children down into representatives of childhood play. It follows the overall theme of the “childhood section,” as described in Section 2, where any traces of poverty have been obliterated visually or through Steichen’s decontextualization and recontextualization of the images. In childhood, whether or not you are “suffering,” (and wherever you might live) there is birth, play, siblings, friends, learning, etc. It speaks to Steichen’s tendency towards the Barthesian “universal humanism,” where childhood, stripped of its specifics, becomes a meta-​series of events — stories — where the main character isn’t the individuals in the photographs, but instead the Stiechenian universal story of childhood. Or a stanza on childhood in the larger epic poem of humanity. There is a tension, or contradiction, through the photographs acting individually as depictions of events made to serve specific themes while literally depicting individuals in each of the photographs. Now I am somewhere between the way Steichen and his adherents wanted people to view the show — the almost-​endless stream of images converging into the mind as a singular portrait (though containing multitudes) — and the way we have begun to deconstruct it, making each image into its own contained story with names and historical contexts, sometimes even larger visual contexts, making these actors in the grand Steichen production back into individuals who lived. Who really lived. They were not, when their photographs were taken, purely pawns — even if, in the case of the Silk photograph of the Chinese boy, his photograph was meant to depict a horrible event. In their original contexts, these images sometimes accompanied stories or captions that gave people names, and gave them an active stake in their depiction. Recontextualized into the Family of Man, they become less dynamic. Silk’s photograph of a grandfather caring for his grandchild, in its original context, exists on a timeline of sorts. It is possible to imagine their past, and their future. In the stream of consciousness method of the Family of Man, they become an island we cannot visit, for we cannot place it on a relational map — the photo exists, instead, on a kind of relative map. The linkages are not metaphorical seas of real context, but instead thematic routes and conceptual coordinates.

4. Conclusion/Further Thoughts

There is a unique essence in the photographs of children in this exhibition, perhaps descendent from the way children are traditionally perceived. At the time of the show, post-​war prosperity rained and there was a real optimism about the future, even with the Cold War latent in the show and slowly coming to a blemish on humanity’s trodden, though at the time smiling, face. Children-​as-​subjects lend themselves uniquely to Steichen’s quest of positive, universal humanism through decontextualization. Children are, in a sense, owned by their parents — they lack their own individual agency. It is not necessarily obvious that a daughter has the right to not be photographed naked by her father. When a child disobeys, when a child says no, they can be punished. Though the Holocaust was not yet conceived of as the obscene shattering-​of-​being that we see it as today, it was still fresh in 1955. It exists, somewhat subtly, in this exhibition and book. It was to become characterized as evil, where humans were “just following orders” (or, at least, that is how many Nazis attempted to defend themselves). Afraid to spurn their now more powerful parent, the state, and face punishment for disobeying — no matter their own internal ethics/morals/thoughts. Or so they say. Children, then, are directed by their parental figures — and what bigger a father figure is there than Steichen ? Captain Steichen, photography curator writing the epic poem of humanity. (Or, at least, the next sequel… what else are religious texts than epic poems on various aspects of human nature and existence ?)

Children, too, are perceived as innocent. Too young to do real wrong — like the play-​gambling in Ruth Orkin’s photograph. Children are perhaps the only Germans who could escape the taint of the Holocaust. It would be impossible for them to know, impossible for them to prevent. Children are perhaps, then, the perfect vehicles for Steichen to showcase humanity — they are the only ones without complicity in the last great war. Or in any war, for that matter. Though Steichen gives us the locations of people, a child from the Soviet Union cannot really be conceived of as a communist. They are too young to understand. Does it make it weirdly easier to slowly chip away at their unique humanity, because they cannot know ? Are we turned back onto more childlike states of being through viewing this show, as there is so little we can know about each individual photograph (unless it is already familiar, or an old news story from page 68 of LIFE is fresh in one’s mind…), thus making us more receptive to learning (in the way that children are) ?

There are many photographs coded in suffering in this show, but Steichen’s methods often strip away our ability to know this suffering. He chose images that did not make the suffering explicit visually, and did not give us enough information to know what truly happened in each photograph. They are all stories, but they lack any facts. Their truth transcends their content, and is formed in our minds (uniquely to each of us), and that truth slowly forms together to tell us a version of humanity. Not necessarily a happy humanity, and definitely not an innocent humanity but an optimistic humanity. A humanity that can learn from its past, as even if the specific historical contexts have been stripped away there still exists a sense of responsibility, a sense that bad things have happened before but we can come together to prevent them from happening again ! In this show there were no plinths beneath each photograph with LIFE magazines pointing towards the image in its original context, no stacks of magazines or contact sheets to flip through. Indeed, Steichen rarely points at all, that anchoring and shouting that Barthes so hated in his later writing, and when he does point… it is more of a glance or a subtle shake of the head. And when he points more obviously, it is sometimes to highlight the bad, like the text about hunger near the starving Chinese boy.

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[2] Google. (untitled item) — George Silk — Google Cultural Institute. May 28, 2015. https ://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/XgGWriXCSY_7rw.

[3] Sandeen, Eric J. Picturing an Exhibition. New Mexico : University of New Mexico Press, 2010 : 2.

[4] Steichen, Edward. Family of Man. New York : The Museum of Modern Art, 2006 : 147.

[5] Ibid., 150.

[6] Ibid., 152.

[8] Ibid., 31.

[9] Ibid., 29 — 34.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] Ibid., 29 – 35.

[12] Google. George Silk China Famine — Google Cultural Institute. May 2015. https ://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/user-gallery-edit/george-silk-china-famine/aAICCGilrrSlIQ (accessed May 282015).

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] LIFE Magazine. “China Famine.” LIFE, May 13, 1946 : 29.

[18] Church, Harlow M. “Ottawa Citizen — Google News Archive Search.” Google News. May 71946.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Wong, Edward. “Pollution Rising, Chinese Fear for Soil and Food.” The New York Times. Dec 30, 2013. http ://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/31/world/asia/good-earth-no-more-soil-pollution-plagues-chinese-countryside.html (accessed May 282015).

[22] Tsui, Bonnie. “China’s Pollution Problem Is Also a Food Crisis.” CityLab. Jan 16, 2014. http ://www.citylab.com/politics/2014/01/chinas-pollution-problem-also-food-safety-crisis/8122/ (accessed May 282015).

[23] Quoted, Kaplan, Louis. American Exposures : Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century. Minn : University of Minnesota Press, 2005 : 71.

[24] Ibid., quoted, 72.

[25] Ibid., quoted, 73.

[26] Steichen, Edward, Carl Sandburg, Ernest K Lindley, and Bob Considine, interview by Ned Brooks. Meet the Press : Carl Sandburg and Edward Steichen NBC News. Sep 131959.

http ://www.nbcuniversalarchives.com/nbcuni/clip/5113383586_s01.do (accessed May 2015).

[27] Jones, Adam. Misrepresenting a famine image. Oct 07, 2010. http ://jonestream.blogspot.com/2010/10/did-dikotter-misrepresent-famine-image.html.

[28] Silk, George. “(untitled item) — George Silk — Google Cultural Institute.” Google Cultural Institute. 1951. https ://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/asset-viewer/mQF02jo9Vv5rOw (accessed May 282015).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Steichen, Edward. Family of Man. New York : The Museum of Modern Art, 2006 : 53

[31] Ibid., 28.

[32] Ibid., 37.

[33] Ibid., 47.

[34] The only image I would comfortably classify is on page 31, which I can only comfortably say depicts people who are at least middle class because of the expense that horseback riding entails.

[35] Maybe Barthes is right about the Family of Man, then. These photos, decontextualized, betray any sense of economic inequality that they might have originally represented.

[36] Parsons, Neil. Botswana. Jan 29, 2015. http ://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/75170/Botswana/43909/British-protectorate (accessed May 282015).

[38] LIFE Magazine. “LIFE — Google Books.” Google Books. Sep 3, 1951. https ://books.google.com/books ?id=k04EAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA17&dq=george silk 1951 jamaica&pg=PA24#v=twopage&q&f=false (accessed May 282015).

[39] Ibid.

[40] orton, Grady. Monthly Weather Review. Washington DC, Apr 151952.

http ://www.aoml.noaa.gov/general/lib/lib1/nhclib/mwreviews/1951.pdf.

[41] LIFE Magazine. “LIFE — Google Books.” Google Books. Sep 3, 1951 : 24 – 25. https ://books.google.com/books ?id=k04EAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA17&dq=george silk 1951 jamaica&pg=PA24#v=twopage&q&f=false (accessed May 282015).

[42] Ibid., 24.

[43] Ibid., 24 – 27.

[44] Notes on (Table 1) :

· Spans pages 22 through 53, which I have decided is the “childhood” section

· “nw” is used when the apparent ethnicity is unclear. Further research on each picture needed.

  • Country” is verbatim from Steichen’s caption.

· For “Hints at economic class,” my methodology was to pick out any signs or signifiers that could be reasonably perceived as indicating poverty or wealth. What those “hints” specify is left open to interpretation. “n/a” is used when there were no signifiers that could overtly indicate economic class. The biggest problem for me is that clothing is probably the best indicator of class in most of these photographs (as personal possessions are rare), and I am not well versed on mid-​century fashion.

[45] Artsy. Auction Result for “THE CARD PLAYERS” by Ruth Orkin | Sotheby’s New York, Sep 30, 2014 | Artsy . https ://www.artsy.net/artist/ruth-orkin/auction-result/542e58c2776f7228ee660100  (accessed May 282015).

[46] Institute for Children, Poverty, and Homelessness. Timeline | History of Poverty & Homelessness in NYC. 2015. http ://povertyhistory.org/timeline (accessed May 282015).

[47] Hevesi, Alan G. Population Trends in New York State’s Cities. Albany, Dec 2004 : 5 : http ://www.osc.state.ny.us/localgov/pubs/research/pop_trends.pdf.

[48] Yale University Art Gallery. The Card Players (Marylin). 2015. http ://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/29993  (accessed May 282015).

[50] Ibid.

[51] Yale University Art Gallery. The Card Players (Marylin). 2015. http ://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/29993  (accessed May 282015).

[53] Christie’s. RUTH ORKIN | The Card Players (1947) | Christie’s. 2015. http ://www.christies.com/LotFinder/lot_details.aspx ?from=salesummary&intObjectID=1748115  (accessed May 282015).

[54] Ruth Orkin Photo Archive. Children : : Ruth Orkin Photo Archive. 2015. http ://www.orkinphoto.com/photographs/children/ (accessed May 282015).

[55] LIFE Magazine. “LIFE — Google Books.” Google Books. Nov 26, 1951. https ://books.google.com/books ?id=g1QEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA68&dq=orkin&hl=en&sa=X&ei=18saVYfiDMiwggSQnoOQAw&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=twopage&q&f=false (accessed May 28, 2015) : 68.

[56] Ances​try​.com. 1940 United States Federal Census — Ances​try​.com. 2015. http ://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll ?db=1940usfedcen&indiv=try&h=11523747  (accessed May 282015).

[57] Friedman, Morgan. The Inflation Calculator. 2015. http ://www.westegg.com/inflation/ (accessed May 282015).

[72] Oakland Museum of CA. 2010.54.2185 | OMCA COLLECTIONS. 2015. http ://collections.museumca.org/ ?q=collection-item/2010542185  (accessed May 282015).

[73] Ibid.

[74] LIFE Magazine. “LIFE — Google Books.” Google Books. Nov 26, 1951. https ://books.google.com/books ?id=g1QEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA68&dq=orkin&hl=en&sa=X&ei=18saVYfiDMiwggSQnoOQAw&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=twopage&q&f=false (accessed May 282015).

[75] International Center of Photography Museum. eMuseum. 2015. http ://emuseum.icp.org/view/people/asitem/items$0040null :657/0 ?t :state :flow=dc233481-4245-4d43-89ab-1937c70623ba (accessed May 282015).

[76] LIFE Magazine. “LIFE — Google Books.” Google Books. Nov 26, 1951 : 68 – 69. https ://books.google.com/books ?id=g1QEAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA68&dq=orkin&hl=en&sa=X&ei=18saVYfiDMiwggSQnoOQAw&ved=0CDkQ6AEwAQ#v=twopage&q&f=false (accessed May 282015).

[77] Brooklyn College. The Little Fugitive. 2015. http ://www.brooklyn.cuny.edu/bc/spotlite/news/092803.htm (accessed May 282015).