The Family of man: a camera testament
Photography has been hailed as the most typical art of the 20th century. Yet it is hardly more than a hundred years since the invention of "writing with light" opened a new window on the world to mankind. Certain persons can still remember the time when good pictures were a rarity; when only the most expensive books had good illustrations; when only the wealthy could afford good pictures in their homes.
Today photographs are everywhere around us. We see them in books and magazines, in newspapers, on posters in shops, and in the high-quality colour reproductions of works of art hanging on our walls. We can see pictures in motion on a cinema screen or projected thousands of miles through space by television. We can read cumbersome, weighty books from tiny microfilm records stored easily in libraries, and we can record what scientists see with a telescope, an electron microscope or an X-ray machine. Photography is now more widely used by science, industry, the arts and schools than even the most fanatic of its early prophets had ever dared to imagine.
Certain notes of alarm, it is true, have been voiced of late against this mass invasion of photography. "Nothing is more vain," one art historian recently wrote, "than to believe in the all-powerfulness of the pictorial image." At a Unesco-supported international colloquium in Geneva last September, a distinguished group of thinkers debated the subject under the general theme "Is Culture in Peril?". The French writer André Chamson, in a profound analysis of the achievements of photography, warned of the danger of a "possible imperialism" of the pictorial image which is flooding the world "like a burglar, armed with a jemmy, snapping the lock off a door and entering a house by surprise."
But even the severest critics do not seek to deny that photography has helped to enrich our lives, that it has given us a new vision of the world, and that it speaks a universal language. Last summer an international round table on the role of the image in contemporary civilization was held at Unesco House under the auspices of the French National Commission for Unesco and the International Biennal of Photography Cinema and Optics. Scientists, educators, artists and technicians from many countries engaged in a broad exchange oí views on the many domains of human activity now dependent on photography. They stressed the importance of the pictorial image in information and education and its value as a new "universal language capable of being understood by everyone regardless of degree of culture." They pointed to the use that could be made of pictures in promoting international understanding. Their meeting also saw the creation of an International Centre for still and animated Photography with headquarters in Paris.
The round table discussed the familiar saying that "a picture is worth a thousand words" and took the view that certain photographs are "worth ten million words provided they are accompanied by about ten words." In certain cases, it was admitted, appropriate arrangement or lay-out can take the place of captions. Every good photograph has a specific meaning but its inclusion into a group or ensemble imparts new meaning to it.
One exhibition entitled "The Family of Man" was cited as an example where each photograph by itself "does not tell the story" but the message is conveyed by the ensemble of photographs. In this issue a section is devoted to a presentation of "The Family of Man" a camera testament that illustrates one of the principal goals of Unesco today: the unity of all mankind within its varied diversity.