Photography: Who We Are

August 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: The great “Family of Man” photo exhibit is nearly 50 years old, and one winces to realize that the children in those remarkable photographs are old today, and the old, long gone. That’s the beauty of pictures, of course: They hold life in place. And the power of the “Family of Man” collection implied that, too– that the fundamental, significant, and more beautiful moments of living remain in place, even as people find ways to tear themselves apart.

Now comes a trio of photographic books from William Morrow called “Family,” “Love,” and “Friendship”– each book carrying the subtitle, “A Celebration of Humanity.” Some of these pictures are simply too easy, and because of their ready sentimentality, one does not really get into them. The little girls playing together, for example, or the woman and the soldier parting at a train station. But others are very good indeed: The old gentleman with dogs and flowers; the burial of the family dog; the toothy smiles; the reckless hugs– all illustrate how hard won are those occasions when one’s poses for the outside world are dropped, protections dropped like veils, and we see not how easy it is to be intimate with one another, but rather how unusual it is.

The accidental conspiracies we enter into; the way we fall upon one another; the surprise recognition of life; the way a civilization comes into existence; the ways we learn. The first thing one thinks of to say when seeing these pictures is some banality like, “this is real life, the life of who we are.” But the fact that one stares at the photos, generally in pleased wonder, suggests how rare a thing intimacy is, as if people, to be displayed at their most endearing, need to be caught off guard. There is a suggestion underlying these photos that we are more like ourselves in these moments. But there’s a counter supposition is equally possible: That we are like ourselves when we are private and distant from one another, or whatever the opposite of intimacy may be, and it is just as unusual to be off guard as on.

My favorite of these photographs seems to catch these polarities. A mother plays the piano while her baby sits under it, staring up at the source of the music. They are together, mother and child, but they are also lost in their separate endeavors. This is who we are. And this, too: Old friends stand or sit together. We kiss or rub faces. We take affectionate interest in one another. We play at love. We rejoice in the ruins. We worry. This is who we are, but it is just part of who we are.

At our other moments, we do not get along in groups, and are not intimate. If it’s the opposite of intimacy you’re looking for, try that mob of men in Central Park a few years ago, who were groping women for sport; try a riot at a soccer game in Europe; try a war. When those instances of violent separateness are over, or when intermissions occur among them, only then do we seem to find the time to get close.

“We must love one another or die,” wrote W.H. Auden. I think that these are photographs of people making a choice.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.