Re-presentation, disability and gender: Modern representations of disabled women in popular imagery

The Family of Man
The Family of Man exhibition opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on January 24th 1955 and has been shown around the world since then. The exhibition was composed of 503 photographs grouped thematically around subjects such as love, children, and death. All the photographs in the exhibition focused on the commonalties that are common to all peoples and cultures and it served as an expression of humanism in the decade following World War II.

Edward Steichen was the exhibitions’ curator and began preparations for it 1952 when he visited 29 cities in 11 European countries exploring photographs which would fit his theme. In the same year he placed press releases and interviews calling for photographic submissions where anyone could submit an image as long as they were unmounted and no larger than 8 x 10 inches in size. No payments or prizes were to be awarded but the photographer would be acknowledged. Over 2 million photographs were submitted.

In 1954, the 2 million photographs were edited down to 10,000 and then to the 503 images that were displayed. The exhibited photos represented the work of 273 photographers from 68 countries and of which 163 were Americans.

The exhibition was a monumental success. On the first day 6000 people visited it. In the first two weeks, more than 35,000 viewers visited. When the show closed at MoMA 103 days later over 270,000 viewers had seen it. The USIA estimates that more than 7.5 million visitors saw the exhibition abroad in the ten years after it opened in New York. By 1978 the exhibition catalogue had sold more than five million copies, and it remains in print. Since 1994 the exhibition has even enjoyed a permanent home in a castle in Clervaux, Luxembourg.

The Family of Man included only one image of someone obviously disabled out of the 503 exhibition photos. I tried to place this to one side but found that difficult to do – the exhibition said something about disabled people by our absence.

Bill Wood’s Business
Diane Keaton purchased 20,000 negatives in the 1980s that were from a photography store owned and run by a Man named Bill Wood that had closed down. All the images were taken in and around Fort Worth in Texas from 1937 to 1973, and so I imagined the sheer range of photos would offer me some insight into what people took photos of at that place and time.

Yet of the book’s 269 pages of which only 27 are not pages of photographs only one single photo was of an obviously disabled person. However I can’t know if this is because there are not many in the collection of 20000 images or whether the editors of the book decided not to include any.

It is clear that women have been represented in popular images in quite narrow ways, at least after WW2, but that when disability is introduced its representation trumps other identities. It seems as if you can either be a women or a disabled person, but you can’t be both when represented in popular images. I will look at contemporary images next.

Steichen, E. (ed.) (1955, 1983 edn.) The Family of Man MoMA

Keaton, D. and Heiferman, M. 2008 Bill Wood’s Business, Published by Steidl


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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